As silent comedy-movie director Mack Sennett harrumphs “Writers. They’ll kill this industry yet.” David Soul gets a laugh with the line but, ironically, it’s writers who have killed past productions of “Mack and Mabel.” Jerry Herman’s best-loved score may be stuffed with musical diamonds, but it has book problems in spades. Enter John Doyle and his actor-musician approach. With his “Sweeney Todd” at the Eugene O’Neill and “Company” set to hit Broadway in November, the Brit director’s career in musical transformations couldn’t be hotter. Alas, even he can’t spin musical gold from dramatic straw.
Musicals are celebrated for their songs, but they stand or fall on the book. This one ought to have everything going for it. It’s the industry staple: Backstage saga meets heart-breaking love-story. Real-life silent-movie mogul Mack Sennett makes kid from the deli Mabel Normand into a star. She loves him, he loves his work; he loses her, her career crashes; he aches with regret, the show ends … happily or unhappily? Well, that depends.
The original 1974 Broadway run — all 65 performances of it — was downbeat, with Mack having an all-too-last-minute revelation of love. The 1995 London production added a joyous comeback for Mabel. Doyle’s production, with script revisions by Francine Pascal, goes for major pathos as Mack looks back in anguish. Despite everyone’s best efforts, however, the touching payoff doesn’t land because of the show’s structural faultline.
The passion of the songs relates largely to the lead characters’ private selves, but the book spends almost all its time addressing their public lives. The action of the show is too tied to moviemaking to give us the kind of character idiosyncrasy that would make us truly care about the two lovers.
Doyle’s idea is to rid the show of its top dressing of moviemaking and chorus girls to reveal its emotional core. Removal of Hal Prince’s Grand Guignol staging to show the dramatic detail of Stephen Sondheim’s score and Hugh Wheeler’s book is, in part, is what makes Doyle’s “Sweeney Todd” so exhilarating. Denuding “Mack and Mabel” in this way only reveals the schematic nature of the writing. There are times when you feel you’re watching the treatment, not the script.
The show scuppers itself by relying on an almost show-and-tell device: flashback scenes cutting in and out of Mack’s direct-address narrative. But voiceover is often the resort of the dramatically desperate. We need to see and feel what characters are going through, not hear about it.
Trying to make theater auds believe they’re watching movies being made is a tough call with a full-scale production. With just 11 people onstage, you need a big idea. Doyle and designer Mark Bailey go for an oddly literal answer. They project movie scenes and images across a curtain drawn back and forth across the stage. Not only is this at odds with the nonliteral performance style that has the cast playing instruments while in character, it also makes you realize that movies do movies better than theater does.
The show also has to square up to the conundrum that it’s a musical about stars who didn’t talk, much less sing. The trick is to render their screen presence into song, relying on the power of the performer to bewitch auds. In the 1995 production, when Caroline O’Connor let rip with the show’s great torch song “Time Heals Everything” — with its superbly contradictory final twist “but loving you” — you forgot the show doesn’t work.
Janie Dee has perfect saucer eyes and a rare comic gift. With a winning gleam in her eye, she’s convincing as a silent star and touching in her descent into drugs. What she no longer has is the voice to pull off a role that only really comes to life in the crucial solos. She acts her way through them but her passion simply doesn’t devastate the way it should.
Soul has the reverse problem. Although the spirit of the late Robert Preston hovers around his gruff musical phrasing, Soul’s singing is characterful. In acting terms, however, he labors his pauses and lacks charm. Without it, we don’t sympathize with Mabel’s adoration; Mack becomes simply overbearing, and what should register as regret curdles into self-pity.
As ever in Doyle’s actor-musician productions, they’re surrounded by mind-bending talent in the ensemble. Tomm Coles’ Frank (also alto and soprano sax and flute), Sarah Whitttuck’s Lottie (alto sax and percussion) and Matthew Woodyatt’s Fatty (euphonium, double bass and percussion) all have serious voices. Your jaw drops still further as they kick off the “Tap Your Troubles Away” dance number.
Doyle’s marshalling of the cast adds a cunning layer of wit. Taking the lead from silent movies that had musical accompaniment, Doyle’s cast accompany themselves, with Dee amusingly adding her own cymbal and triangle effects to Mabel’s pratfalls and putting her own musical button on numbers.
That’s certainly a tribute to Sarah Travis’ jazz-era orchestrations. She lavishes affection on the material, suggesting the ’20s with evocative banjo strums, but also releases further effects via a more contempo palette including electric keyboard, heartbreaking sax wails and the tingle of tuned percussion.
Yet for all that felicitiousness, Doyle and Travis cannot disguise the weakness of the material, which lacks a metaphor for the actor-musicians to embody. “What’s an artist if he can’t change life?” asks Mack. Unfortunately, theater artist Doyle can only change so much of a script that never lives up to its score.