Saturday, 14 July 2012

Review Mack and Mabel

Mack and Mabel
Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman, Book by Michael Stewart
Based on an idea by Lionel Spigelglass, Revised by Francine Pascal
Southwark Playhouse SE1

More Than Bagels and Knishes

With a ravishing 1974 score by Jerry  Herman, musical Mack and Mabel, a saga of silent movies, stardom, drugs and a doomed love affair should be a stonking success. Knowing the wonderful songs beforehand, TLT and her firing-on-all-cylinders sidekick were inclined to be kindly disposed and doubt the criticism of the late Michael Stewart's book as some sort of 1970s’ theatrical politicking.  Any musical with the song “Look What Happened to Mabel”, where lyrics impeccably rhyme “ambitious” and “knishes” and still manage to convey touchingly the revolutionary impact of movie technology on people’s lives,  must have something going for it.  Well, your dynamic theatregoing duo came out humming the tunes and admiring the intermittent dance routines but understanding,  through experience, what the critics meant. As silent movie pioneer, Mack Sennett, Norman Bowman is a tad young for the role but has the charismatic brooding look, bone structure and power in his voice to take on the classic Herman bitter-sweet hymns to life, love and the movie industry. Flame-haired Laura Pitt-Pulford's singing performance also reaches powerful heights as deli delivery girl turned Sennett star and lover Mabel Normand. Classy performances emerge too from Jessica Martin as tough-talking Lottie Ames and Stuart Matthew Price as quietly efficient and tactful up-and-coming director Frank Capra.  The problem is the way the main characters of Sennett and his star Mabel Normand are written rather than the performances. The personalities dissolve as the show progresses, pulling any number of ways with no exact trajectory and fudging the melodrama. Maybe in the 1970s, an early twentieth-century tale ending in drugs and eventual death,  with lunatic antics, vagaries of film finance, drug dealing, hints of abortions, gangland hits and something darker underlying even the zany Keystone cops were just too close to home to write about in an uncensored fluent fashion.  In contrast, Fred Ebb's and Bob Fosse's satiric book for Chicago achieves an upbeat, if perverse, slick American Dream ending. Despite revisions by Stewart’s sister Francine Pascal, Herman’s soaring musical peaks can’t hide the dips into anti-climactic dialogue, hurried transitions and narrative clumsiness. Yet, it’s worth keeping the faith for the songs, set numbers, the ragged, atmospheric true-life tragedy and the sisyphean task just about overcome by a talented, hard-working  cast and team, including director Thom Southerland and choreographer Lee Proud. So, still totally worth seeing and an amber light.

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