The original 1974 Broadway production of Mack and Mabel had such a critical mauling that it lasted only 66 performances. Jonathan Church’s revival, (with a revised book) for Chichester Festival Theatre, currently touring the UK, has well and truly laid those demons to rest.
Despite its reputation as a musical tragedy, recounting as it does, the doomed relationship between egomaniacal, single-minded, silent film director Mack Sennett (Michael Ball) and deli-worker turned movie star, Mabel Normand (Rebecca LaChance), this is a surprisingly upbeat, and thoroughly entertaining show.
To its credit, it doesn’t shy away from the less palatable aspects of the pair’s tumultuous lives; Sennett’s bullying and scant regard for those around him and Normand’s drug and alcohol addiction are all shown here. As a musical theatre hero, Sennett certainly falls short, effectively illustrated in his relationship with the young office assistant who went on to become the legendary Frank Capra, who delivers some home truths to Sennett about his part in Normand’s downfall. It’s a refreshing change from the usual musical theatre fodder.
Ball has proven his dramatic worth since his role as Sweeney Todd, and he is exceptional here. Never trying to get the audience on his side, he is uncompromising, playing the character as it is; big, bold, brash and bullying. LaChance is a delightful Mabel, her wide-eyed charm and grating Noo Yawk accent, well-judged.
There is fabulous attention to detail in every aspect of this production. Jerry Herman’s knock-out score is brilliantly played by the outstanding band and the ensemble sound stunning when singing as one. Robert Jones wonderfully ingenious set and costume designs are dazzling. The use of projections is among the best I’ve ever seen, being both original and witty and Stephen Mears choreography is a delight, visually stunning and inventive.
There are some glorious set pieces here: the ‘Roman’ movie scene, the bathing beauties and the brilliant Keystone Cops are particular highlights.
I often find that the mark of a truly great show is how quickly time passes – and this whipped along at a break-neck pace. Stunning to look at and listen to, this truly is a five-star production.
Runs at the Playhouse, Edinburgh until Saturday 22 November 2015