Mack and Mabel has a reputation as a problem musical with a bit of an identity crisis. There’s plenty to love, and it’s developed a strong cult following since it premiered in 1974, but it’s true that it never manages to meld together its dark and light sides into an entirely cohesive whole.
Using the lives of silent movie director Mack Sennett and screen star Mabel Normand as its inspiration, Mack and Mabel attempts to capture the energy, enthusiasm, humour and joy of slapstick movie-making in the 1910s and ’20s, while dealing with the tumultuous nature of the central pair’s relationship.
All Mack wants is to “make the world laugh” (that’s the gist of one of his big solos), but he’s unable to show that generosity to Mabel, his muse and great love. He “discovers” her, but he’s stubborn, domineering and often abusive where she’s concerned. Despite enormous chemistry between the pair and a mutual need, he eventually turns her away, and she finds herself in a downward spiral without the guidance she built her life around.
After making his major directorial debut with a loud and brash production of Heathers at the Hayes Theatre, Trevor Ashley finds a much softer touch for this gentle and simpler show. And he mostly solves the “problem” of the musical.
Despite its big Broadway beginnings, the story at the centre of Mack and Mabel is a very intimate one — almost every conflict is between its two protagonists.
Ashley smartly finds the right balance and captures the magic of early movie-making in a detailed but never cluttered production. In many senses, it’s the perfect material for the intimate Hayes Theatre — all about creating magic with limited resources and finding moments of spectacle in the smallest of worlds. Lauren Peters’ movie studio-inspired set design reflects that spirit perfectly.
Michael Stewart’s book has moments of great flair and inspiration, and gives Mack and Mabel’s on-again, off-again relationship the right sense of tension. It takes a few too many shortcuts to really take hold emotionally — it deals with both Mabel’s alleged drug addiction and involvement in the murder of director William Desmond Taylor in a cursory fashion — but the narrative is clearly relayed.
Jerry Herman, best known for Hello, Dolly!, Mame and La Cage aux Folles, wrote a score full of bright, infectious, traditional Broadway numbers to tell what is, in essence, quite a tragic story.
And although the book scenes are generally strong in this production, it’s Herman’s musical numbers which shine brightest, with Ashley’s staging, Cameron Mitchell’s stylish choreography and Bev Kennedy’s lively musical direction (which almost makes you forget that there’s not a full Broadway orchestra in the band room). In this production, I Won’t Send Roses moves away from its broadly schmaltzy reputation to an intimate confession, while Wherever He Ain’t is a wildly defiant and furious statement.
Mitchell’s movement, from the low-key quartet of dancers playfully making their way through Look What Happened to Mabel to the full glamour of the big tap sequence in Tap Your Troubles Away, seems to emerge entirely naturally from the music and character.
Even the supporting players maintain their characters throughout each musical number, including Deone Zanotto, who is an absolute knockout as Lottie Ames.
Angelique Cassimatis and Scott Irwin lead the company beautifully in the title roles and find plenty of chemistry between them. Irwin’s broad and warm baritone leads the audience through this story in both song and monologue, and his whole performance resonates with a deep sense of regret and love.
The story is told via a flashback through Mack’s eyes, and you do get the sense that details are coloured by his own perspective. But that doesn’t prevent Cassimatis from making Mabel her own three-dimensional, fully-fleshed character.
She’s subjected to a great deal of Mack’s abuse and degradation, but she’s much, much more than that. When she’s very young, Mabel is told by Mack exactly what she should want from the world, and her entire worldview shifts to line up with his. Of course, Mabel never emerges from the pressures put upon her by men, but there is a point at which she makes the decision to discover her own ambitions, and Cassimatis captures that struggle perfectly.
Cassimatis is a bona fide musical theatre star and it’s a shame she hasn’t been given more chances to show all she’s capable of. She’s a genuine triple threat — not just the kind of performer who can sing, dance, and act up a storm, but the kind of who understands how all three of those elements work together.
When I interviewed Ashley a few weeks ago, he told me half of the reason he was even doing Mack and Mabel was that he felt Cassimatis needed a star vehicle. This is an excellent production across the board, but it is genuinely worth seeing for Cassimatis alone. Here’s hoping more producers find leading roles for her in the near future.
Featured image by Lightbox Photography