Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Mack and Mabel
Fountain Hills Theater
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's recent reviews of Newsies, Heathers The Musical and Alice by Heart

Rob Stuart and Rochelle Barton
Photo by Patty Torrilhon
Focusing on interesting historical characters and featuring a gorgeous score, the musical Mack and Mabel is a humorous and heartfelt homage to the golden age of silent film. Fountain Hills Theater is presenting a fairly solid production of this rarely produced show that captures the magic and tragedy of early Hollywood.

The plot focuses on the tumultuous relationship between famed silent film director Mack Sennett and one of his biggest stars, Mabel Normand. Set against the backdrop of the booming early 20th-century film industry, the show begins with Mack reminiscing about his glory days and then unfolds in flashbacks, starting with Mack discovering Mabel, a waitress, and transforming her into a beloved movie star. Their professional collaboration soon blossoms into a complicated romance, and the musical chronicles their journey from their first meeting to their rise in the film industry, and their eventual personal and professional downfall.

Featuring a score by Jerry Herman and a book by Michael Stewart, Mack and Mabel didn't have a long Broadway run, even though it starred Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters. This is most likely due to that fact that, while Herman's score is fantastic and the book weaves a poignant story of love, ambition, and the fleeting nature of fame, the characters aren't entirely likable and the book never truly shows why Mabel is drawn to Mack or why he constantly pushes her away, simply showing him as a stubborn workaholic who is also jealous of any attention Mabel receives. The show also forces in a happy ending and uses Mack narrating the plot throughout as a way to attempt to piece the various scenes together. While the musical has been revised over the years (the script for this production features revisions by Francine Pascal), the updated version isn't entirely successful. Fortunately, Herman's score is a joy, with many superb songs, and it's great to see Fountain Hills presenting this rarely produced show and to hear those lovely songs (in over four decades of theatregoing, I believe this is only the second time I've been in a city where someone was producing this musical.)

In the lead role of Mack Sennett, Rob Stuart delivers a commanding performance that captures the character's gruff and abrasive exterior but also lets us witness Mack's moments of regret and vulnerability. His portrayal of Mack's relentless drive and eventual remorse is both compelling and nuanced. Stuart's singing voice is husky and rough around the edges, so his high notes are clipped, but he manages to bring drive and emotion to songs like "Movies Were Movies" and "I Won't Send Roses," revealing the complexities of a man torn between his passion for filmmaking and his feelings for Mabel.

Opposite him, Rochelle Barton is wonderful as Mabel Normand. Her transformation from a tough-talking waitress to a confident star is believable, and her performance is infused with grace, wit and charm. Barton's clear and bright singing voice shines in numbers such as "Look What Happened to Mabel" and "Time Heals Everything," capturing Mabel's optimism, vulnerability, and eventual heartbreak, and her performance of "Wherever He Ain't," which crackles with a biting belt, is a showstopper. Her chemistry with Stuart is palpable and authentic, making their characters' tumultuous relationship all the more poignant, even though Stewart's book doesn't give them much to play off of.

The ensemble cast is somewhat uneven, but several members deliver vibrant and comical performances, including Logan Holmes as Frank Wyman, Mack's loyal cameraman and later his head writer, and Courtney Jacobs as Lottie Ames, one of Mack's actresses, who both provide moments of humor and warmth. As Frank, Holmes adds a lovely sense of loyalty to the story with a warm singing voice that adds some sparkle to "When Mabel Comes in the Room." Jacob's Lottie brings a delightful energy to the production. Her lively rendition of "Tap Your Troubles Away" is a highlight. Also, Hector Coris and George Pollard as the two money men who invest in Mack's company add pops of humor throughout, while Valerie Tanner has fun providing some humorous sound effects in "Hit 'Em on the Head."

Director Peter J. Hill does a fairly good job guiding his cast through the uneven script, but he can't breathe much life into the stilted structure of the story. Noel Irick's choreography provides several fun dances, particularly for "Big Time," "Hundreds of Girls," and "Tap Your Troubles Away." Jeff Blake's set design is static and serviceable and Mickey Courtney's period costumes are wonderful, capturing the glamour and style of the 1910s and 1920s. The numerous video and archival photographs used in Hill and Ross Collins' projections help transport the audience to the era of silent film while showing actual images of the characters in the show. Unfortunately, the five-piece band under Jay Melberg's music direction sounds too thin in several places, especially the overture, for the grand nature of Herman's score.

Mack and Mabel honors the legacy of early Hollywood while telling a poignant story of love, ambition, and the price of fame. It's just a shame, with that wonderful score, that it's not a better musical than it could have been.

Mack and Mabel runs through June 2, 2024 at Fountain Hills Theater, 11445 N. Saguaro Blvd., Fountain Hills AZ. For tickets and information, please visit or call 480-837-9661.

Director/Lighting Design: Peter J. Hill
Music Direction: Jay Melberg
Choreographer: Noel Irick
Set Design: Jeff Blake
Sound Design: Ross Collins
Costume Design: Mickey Courtney
Properties: Jeff Blake, Bob and Alisa Feugate, Patty Torrilhon, Allison Hacker
Projections: Peter J. Hill and Ross Collins
Production Manager: Patty Torrilhon
Stage Manager: Alex Gonzalez

Mack Sennett: Rob Stuart
Mabel Normand: Rochelle Barton
Lottie Ames: Courtney Jacobs
Frank Wyman: Logan Holmes
Ella: Valerie Tanner
Fatty: Stephen Andrews
Kleiman: Hector Coris
Fox: George Pollard
William Desmond Taylor: Adam Gobeski
Watchman/Henry/Kop: Henry Male
Gertie/Phyliss: Jessica Shepler
Freddie/Serge/Kop: Roy Thielen
Ensemble: Tatiana Lee
Ensemble: Ainsley Campbell
Ensemble: Alex Palmatier
Ensemble: Makayla Rogers
Ensemble: Khloee Day