Musical numbers: Overture, “Movies Were Movies,””Look What Happened to Mabel, “”Big Time,””I Won’t Send Roses,””So Who Needs Roses,””I Wanna Make the World Laugh,””Mack and Mabel,””Wherever He Ain’t,””Hundreds of Girls,” Entr’acte, “When Mabel Comes in the Room,””Hit ‘Em on the Head,””Time Heals Everything, “”Tap Your Troubles Away,””I Promise You a Happy Ending.”
The overture of “Mack and Mabel” sets the heart racing, and for as long as the characters are singing, the show does, too. In one number after another, composer Jerry Herman delivers a classically brash and brassy score reminiscent of a musical theater shorn both of operatic pretense and intellectual angst.
The opening song, “Movies Were Movies,” speaks directly to the theater as well in its compulsive look back at an era when popular entertainment held unembarrassed sway and “no one pretended that what we were doing was art.” Herman’s work on “Mack and Mabel” takes this credo to dizzy heights — and in melodic terms, at least, sustains it, complete with a “Hello, Dolly!” equivalent in “When Mabel Comes in the Room”– so it is that much more disconcerting when both the show itself and Paul Kerryson’s production begin to nose-dive.
A Broadway flop in 1974, “Mack and Mabel” has acquired near-legendary status in Britain in the decade-plus since Olympic skaters Torvill and Dean used that breathless overture to accompany an award-winning routine. The experience, though, of actually seeing the tale of silent film director Mack Sennett (Howard McGillin) and his scandal-plagued leading lady, Mabel Normand (Caroline O’Connor), confirms what has been long said of it: Herman’s score finds no equivalent either in the late Michael Stewart’s book or, on this occasion, in a surprisingly cheesy and flat staging imported from the Leicester Haymarket, former home to the West End musical transfers “Me and My Girl” and “High Society.”
It’s difficult to believe this production arrived in London with the benefit of an out-of-town tryout, since so much of the physical production looks under-rehearsed, stale or merely unimaginative. (On more than one instance, the follow spots seemed to be having trouble finding the leads’ faces.)
Doubts set in early during the putative showstopper, “Big Time,” led by Kathryn Evans’ big-voiced resident hoofer, Lottie. The song is quintessential Herman — zestful, confident, hungry for life’s parade — but it is Evans’ delivery that fills the house, not Michael Smuin’s choreography, which all too often is content to line up the performers center-stage and have them storm the footlights. (Evans’ later musical stampede, “Tap Your Troubles Away,” has a similarly canned, generic quality that is no fault of the performer.)
The first-act finale, “Hundreds of Girls,” owes more to a tacky Blackpool end-of-pier follies — Martin Johns’ costumes look as if he bought out Woolworth’s — than anything resembling Broadway pizzazz: the audience has every right to want the knockabout equivalent to such glitz-fests as “Beautiful Girls” from “Follies” and “Dames” from “42nd Street,” whose director, Gower Champion, staged the first “Mack and Mabel.”
In our era of “Sunset Boulevard” and, before that, “City of Angels,” it doesn’t help that Johns’ sets portray a faceless Los Angeles defined by wobbly palm trees and a series of film locations heavy on custard pies and neon, low on visual flair. (The pie routine, by the way, is notably tedious.) The prevailing cheapness would matter less if the story itself were stronger.
Alas, “Mack and Mabel,” like this fall’s other West End bio-musical, “Jolson, ” is so busy tying itself into knots to explain an unsympathetictitle character that it never coheres. While Mack gives us the affair in flashback, often pausing during an exchange with Mabel to lay bare his real feelings as asides to the house, he remains an ornery obsessive –“a grade-A, No. 1 horse’s butt” is Lottie’s assessment — confronted with a self-destructive, much younger Brooklyn hash slinger-turned-comic-diva. (“I just found out,” Mabel snaps at Mack, “other movie stars get paid.”)
Herman and Francine Pascal, sister to librettist Stewart, have made minor revisions to the book that include dropping any final mention of Mabel’s death in 1930, 19 years after she and Mack first met when she was ferrying knockwurst from the local deli. But the psychology of an autocrat addicted to laughter is perfunctorily sketched at best, and the depictions of Mack at work are too protracted even to justify Herman’s jauntily cruel “Hit ‘Em on the Head”– Mack’s filmmaking motto — which comes accompanied by a numbing slapstick routine to leave one yearning for the Keystone Kops ballet from “High Button Shoes” that was a giddy high to “Jerome Robbins’ Broadway.”
It doesn’t help that, Lottie aside, Mack’s stable of players don’t register beyond a Fatty (Philip Herbert) whose hefty waistline seems the only possible link to the legendary Fatty Arbuckle, the comedian whose scandals once rivaled those of the drug-addicted Mabel.
The leading players, like the entire show, come into their own in songs played by the kind of lustrous 23-piece pit band (musical director, Julian Kelly) rarely heard on either side of the Atlantic and orchestrated by Philip J. Lang with a wit unmatched once the music stops. McGillin projects a lean, youthful anxiety at some remove from Sennett’s much-vaunted bearish authority, and he rarely conveys the sheer presence — the bigness — that a Kevin Kline, say, might bring to Robert Preston’s original role.
Still, his tenor rips thrillingly into “Movies Were Movies” all the way through to “I Promise You a Happy Ending,” an upbeat finish whose imposed feel has more to do with creative schizophrenia than with truly satisfying an audience.
The saucer-eyed O’Connor shovels on the kewpie-doll charm that has always come naturally to her Broadway predecessor, Bernadette Peters — O’Connor is too winsome by half — only to segue into a melting “So Who Needs Roses” and, later, a fiery “Wherever He Ain’t” that is the musical high point of the show.
That these performances are already available on a new cast recording timed to coincide with the press night may fuel the “Mack and Mabel” mystique a second time around. My advice is to stick with a recording, sure to make spirits soar, lest one’s live exposure to the material sends a nation’s good will into musical theater freefall.