Despite a book that’s been problematic since the show’s 1974 premiere, inventive staging and a dynamic leading man in Benedict Campbell bring the Shaw Festival’s production of “Mack and Mabel” just inside the winner’s circle. The tuner has always been regarded with affection for its great Jerry Herman score, which is given grade A treatment here. Audiences may just discover that good books are crucial for libraries but musicals can sometimes do without them.
The story of silent-film comedy king Mack Sennett and his doomed love affair with actress Mabel Normand has always been hampered by Michael Stewart’s book, even as revised by his sister, Francine Pascal.
It’s a typical musical theater problem: The first act is fun and games, the second tears and sorrow. Tying a mismatched pair together is never easy (“Camelot,” anyone?), but “Mack and Mabel” makes a real mess of it, with a cocaine-addicted heroine sliding into the gutter in record time and becoming the central figure in the murky murder of director William Desmond Taylor.
But Campbell’s Sennett takes charge of the show the second he bursts onto the stage, driving everything forward with such panache that it’s only after the curtain falls that one realizes there wasn’t a lot of story to hold onto.
He’s helped by helmer Molly Smith, of D.C.’s Arena Stage, who uses the resources available with a clever hand. No, Shaw can’t provide “Hundreds of Girls,” as one of the numbers demands; in fact, there are only six chorines. But Smith conceives of the whole show as a kind of silent-movie-in-progress, making a virtue of the small-scale but lavish production she’s worked out with designer William Schmuck.
Moving platforms, revolving stages and lots of projections help cover the time from 1910 to 1929 and the distance from New York to Los Angeles that the saga covers. The lighting of Jock Munro aids in turning every “we’re making a movie” sequence into a flickering, black-and-white joy, although one wishes the rest of the show had a little more Broadway pizzazz in its illumination.
Campbell is best known as a classical actor, with over 20 years at Stratford and Shaw on his resume, but only a couple of supporting roles in musicals before this one. His voice has that Robert Preston crackle, but he holds his sustained notes with gusto and manages to move with a kind of lumbering elegance. Best of all, he acts superbly, with real reserves of anger and pain beneath the skin.
Glynis Ranney is a charmer as Mabel, wide-eyed and loose-limbed. She has a wonderful purity of tone when she sings, but she’s not a belter. Her big number, “Time Heals Everything,” is sung exquisitely, but somehow lacks the final punch it needs.
The supporting cast are aces, with Gabrielle Jones a larger-than-life Lottie, Jeff Madden a smooth yet complex Frank Capra, Neil Barclay a winning Fatty Arbuckle and Peter Millard a sly Clifton Webb-ish William Desmond Taylor. Jay Turvey and William Vickers bring style to the dullish roles of two financiers.
Paul Sportelli’s 13-piece orchestra has a nice zing to it; the vocal arrangements are smooth, and the sound design of John Lott is a model of understated tact. “A Chorus Line” vet Baayork Lee’s choreography lets down the side a bit, with its all-too-predictable kick lines and times steps, but that’s the only major complaint about the evening.