Music and lyrics: Jerry Herman
Book: Michael Stewart
Director: Jonathan Church
Reviewer: Barbara Michaels
Perfectly pitched, with a finely-honed mix of comedy and pathos, Chichester Festival Theatre’s production of Mack and Mabel is, from start to finish, pure delight; an iconic piece of musical theatre superbly crafted by director Jonathan Church and his creative team.
At the heart of the story is the on-off romance of Hollywood legends: movie director Mack Sennett (Keystone Cops et al) and Mabel Normand, small-time deli delivery girl from a hick town in the US who becomes a silent movie star. Alongside this is the story of the slapstick comedies made by Sennett’s group of pioneering movie-makers in Hollywood’s golden years before sound took over. Set between 1911 and 1938, much of the action takes place on a film set complete with gantry.
This is by no means the first production of Michael Stewart’s book, revised by his sister Francine Pascal, and no doubt it will not be the last – but it nevertheless deserves to go down in the history of musical theatre as one of the best. The high standard throughout by actors, singers, dancers and creatives is awe-inspiring. At the centre of it all is an actor and singer who is arguably unmatched in the range of his talents – Michael Ball. Ball has that inestimable quality that cannot be taught known as stage presence, and the ease with which he does so is sheer joy. From the moment he opens in Act I with the high voltage Movies Were Movies, which he sings with passionate conviction, to the unexpectedly lump-in-the-throat tenderness of I Won’t Send Roses, reprised in Act II, the audience cannot help but empathise with him to the extent of at times wanting to give him a kick up the pants for the dilatory manner in which he conducts his love life.
As Mabel, Broadway import Rebecca LaChance could show a tad more sparky mischievousness in the early scenes but gives a sympathetic portrayal of Mabel’s frustration as, time and again, Sennett fails to cut the mustard as a lover. She captures Mabel’s hesitant acceptance of her rise to fame alongside her introduction into the world of Hollywood glamour and its drug-induced gaiety, plus brings an unexpectedly throat-catching appeal in the wry poignancy of her final solo Time Heals Everything.
Jerry Herman’s music and lyrics are, of course, the main reason why, ever since the Broadway production of 1974, this show has been such a draw. Wonderful tableaux from a talented ensemble here, with Hundreds of Girls with its bathing beauties worthy of special mention. Adding another ingredient to a cornucopia of delights is the energetic tap routine Tap Your Troubles Away, spearheaded by the non-stop toe-tapping vivacity of Anna-Jane Casey with high-speed footwork that is innovatively choreographed by Stephen Mear and costumed by Robert Jones – fishnet tights for the girls and black waistcoat and red tap shoes throughout the ensemble. Brilliant!
Video backdrops, sometimes used successfully and at other times not, are much in vogue nowadays. Projection and video designer Jon Driscoll makes excellent use of them in enhancing and upholding the storyline, especially in the black and white screenings of the silent movies. On a balcony high above the stage, a 15-piece orchestra under the direction of its conductor Robert Scott gives a concert performance of stand-alone merit.
Runs until 6 December 2015 | Image:Manuel Harlan