Mabel Normand lives — at least in this revised version of “Mack and Mabel,” Jerry Herman’s musical that’s been one of the longest-running shoulda-beens in Broadway history. But it takes more than life support for a leading character to solve some fundamental problems with the show, compounded here by a production that lacks the necessary vision, vibrancy and star power.
Much of the blame for the short-lived 1974 production was placed on the decidedly unhappy ending, in which Robert Preston as silent-film director Mack Sennett announced to the audience the death of his star and amour, Mabel Normand, played by Bernadette Peters. This Goodspeed version of the show — with a revised script by Francine Pascal, sister of original librettist Michael Stewart — stops the story before the Grim Reaper arrives. It substitutes a bittersweet moment when Sennett sacrifices his studio for one more film for his tarnished star. It’s a romantic gesture, but too little and too late for a show that still falls short in the book department.
For a story and a score that embraces such a dynamic era and some decidedly larger-than-life comic characters, there’s little sweep or laughs here. What is left is the romance, and while Pascal may have expanded the relationship, it remains thin and troublesome, a dead-end affair that can’t support the musical on its own.
As before, the show is a memory play, told as Sennett looks back on his life with and without Normand. But instead of beginning in the late ’30s after the actress’s death, the show smartly begins in 1929 after the arrival of the talkies, which marked the end of the silent two-reeler comedies that were Sennett’s specialty. The story jumps back to 1910, when deli delivery girl Normand (delightfully played in these scenes by Christiane Noll) accidentally crashes the set of a Sennett comedy and becomes his new discovery and soon-to-be lover. But it’s a romance that has its limits, with Sennett setting boundaries from the beginning, telling Normand his true and only love is moviemaking.
Scott Waara’s Mack lacks the necessary charm, charisma and chutzpah to make his character connect. It’s not just Mack’s love of Mabel that’s problematic here; it’s also his love of movies. There’s little of the joy, wonder and glee in Waara’s perf that should delight audiences, even as his character drives everyone crazy with his bravado, bullying and brashness. Without some personal dazzle, it’s hard to understand why he had such a loyal moviemaking company or why a tough cookie like Normand would stick with him.
It’s certainly not for the laughs, which are few here, despite the fact that we’re dealing with one of the kings of comedy. While it’s impossible to re-create Sennett’s film magic, a theatrical equivalent that captures the spirit hasn’t been found under the direction of Arthur Allen Seidelman (who previously staged the show for L.A.’s “Reprise” concert series).
“Hit ’em on the Head,” a bright and lively song that was cut on the road, is ineffectually presented. It segues into “Every Time a Kop Falls Down” — which also incorporates a Keystone Kops comic “ballet” staged by Marvin Laird — but it all seems belabored. Even the pie-throwing scene lacks a certain madness.
Noll, sporting a Judy Holliday-tinged voice, gives her first-act scenes some comic life. But in the second act, as her character descends into booze, drugs and scandal, there’s little for her to do but look disappointed and depressed. However, her strong soprano does justice to Herman’s best songs: “Time Heals Everything,” “Wherever He Ain’t” and “Look What Happened to Mabel.”
“When Mabel Comes in the Room,” which was criticized as a too-obvious leading-lady salute (a Herman specialty), now is quite touching and gracefully staged by choreographer Dan Siretta. Trouble is all Normand’s friends and colleagues serenading her return to the Sennett studio make minimal impressions: Fatty Arbuckle, nicely embodied by Robert Machray, makes his presence felt due to his size, not his scenes. Screenwriter Frank (as in Capra) has a brief episode that hints of unrequited love for Normand, but it doesn’t add up to much. Sennett’s two producers are generic and interchangeable.
Even sidekick hoofer Lottie has little to say aside from a few not-so-snappy lines. Donna McKechnie is better served by Herman’s terrific wiseguy lyrics in “Tap Your Troubles Away,” a number that momentarily lifts the show and finally fills the Goodspeed stage.
That’s the other problem with this under-realized production. There are just too many important numbers sung in nearly empty spaces. On Eduardo Sicangco’s dull set, the show looks anemic and thinly populated — a problem echoed in the pit, where Herman’s score never has a chance to soar.
For now, die-hard fans of the show’s songs must wait another day for a production and a script that lives up to its music. Perhaps as a movie musical? Now that’s something that would make the king of the silents laugh.