“Mack & Mabel” is one of those shows that you just cannot help seeing good reviews about, and sometimes that can be a problem because you go to the show half hoping that it actually lives up to all its praise and half hoping that it does not disappoint. Well, having seen this show tonight at The Playhouse Theatre, I am happy to say that this one did live up to its reviews; in fact, I think it far better than the reviews I have read indicated.
“Mack & Mabel” has been around for a while (1974) and its two creators – Jerry Herman (music and lyrics) and Michael Stewart (book) are in my opinion simply two of the greatest talents in musical theatre with some fantastic shows between them including “Hello Dolly” and “La Cage aux Folles”.
“Mack & Mabel” is simply the sort of musical that when people reminisce on the “Golden Years” of stage and screen musicals say “They don’t write them like that anymore”. Well they still do, it’s just that there are so few people around who can still do it this well. This show is absolutely a classic “stage musical” with not only wonderful show tunes from Jerry Herman but also truly wonderful and at time simply beautiful lyrics from him. There are wonderful show tunes here such as “Tap Your Troubles Away” and “I Wanna Make The world Laugh”, but also genuinely touching songs with lyrics that show a master writer at work – songs like “I Won’t Send Roses” and “When Mabel Comes in The Room”.
This show is about silent film director Mack Sennett (Michael Ball) who is probably remembered most now for giving Charlie Chaplin his film start, the Keystone Kops and his many “Bathing Beauties films” and his relationship with his discovery and soon to be silent movie star Mabel Normand (Rebecca LaChance)
Sennett specialised in short two reelers of slapstick comedy in the silent film era and never seemed to be well suited to deal with the oncoming of sound and a public wanting more full length feature films. Michael Ball is simply outstanding here as Mack and as well as playing with enormous on stage emotion his relationship with Mabel, also brings to life a man who had had his time in his chosen profession and was simply unable to adapt to what the public were now demanding.
Vocally, Michael’s performance was simply a display of how to do a stage musical role, and the role of Mack really needs someone with not only that vocal ability, but that stage experience and presence that Michael Ball has. This performance will be a delight to many Michael Ball fans out there.
Rebecca LaChance is a perfect Mabel to play against Michael’s Mack. Great vocals, acting and dance numbers, and this role requires them all. Just as importantly though, Rebecca is someone who can display and convey emotion to an audience. Mack loves Mabel and pretty much always has done since he first saw her and Mabel loves Mack...the only problem is that Mack has no idea how to tell her when he should, and Rebecca gets that emotional balance just right here.
The cast here (and chorus) are all great performers...this show has picked a very strong cast that work together so well on stage that the show is just a pleasure to be at. Some names that have to be mentioned (without any slight to other missed) include Rolf Saxon (Mr Baumann), Jack Edwards (Fatty), Timothy Quinlan (Mr Kessel), Gunnar Cauthery (Frank) and Anna-Jane Casey (Lottie Ames).
A lot of the credit for this show must also go to people that you do not see on stage – including director (Jonathan Church), choreographer Stephen Mear, lighting design Howard Harrison and sound design Paul Groothuis. Not forgetting of course wonderful Set and Costume design by Robert Jones. Enormous attention to period detail has been paid to the costumes and Rebecca LaChance as Mabel gets to wear some amazing outfits – particularly the one she has for her cruise.
A lot of the set here is played out against film projections on screen and is a clever mixture of original footage and new footage looking “authentically” original. One nice little touch is seeing the original “HOLLYWOODLAND” white letters on the hills as Max moves his studio to Hollywood.
Mack & Mabel is just perfect musical theatre from a wonderful creative team with a great cast doing great songs and great dance numbers . Simply a slice of classic stage musical the way they used to make them.
If there is a problem with Mack & Mabel at the Playhouse, it is simply that this current run is far too short. I think this is one of those shows that could just fill seats as long as they were there to be filled.
Review by Tom King