The Theatreguide.London Review
Mack and Mabel
Criterion Theatre Spring 2006
This musical about the early days of Hollywood opened on Broadway in 1974 and closed in less than two months, despite seemingly sure-fire credentials - music by Jerry Herman (of Mame and Hello Dolly), book by Michael Stewart (of Bye Bye Birdie and Hello Dolly), and stars Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters.
Over the years since then, the unacceptability of the very idea that Jerry Herman could have a flop, along with the fact that there are some lovely songs in the score, has led to several revivals in America and Britain, none of them successful. And yet, as this current production from the Watermill Theatre shows, they keep trying.
But there is a reason why shows fail. You may not be able to put your finger on one specific item and say 'Change that and it will work.' But something at the core of the show just doesn't gel in a way that creates theatre magic, and no amount of tinkering around the edges and no amount of trying again is likely to change that.
And so it is with this new production, which just never comes alive – in spite of the lovely songs, in spite of a revised book, in spite of an inventive director, in spite of two attractive stars.
The plot is a thoroughly fictionalised version of the relationship between silent film comedy director Mack Sennett and one of his biggest stars, Mabel Normand - repressed, workaholic older man and bubbly, lovestruck girl - here played by David Soul and Janie Dee.
The score is pure Jerry Herman, which is to say lovely, unpretentious pop. Listen hard, and you'll catch the occasional echo from Hello Dolly or Mame, and also some indication that he was aware of what was going on around him on Broadway, with brief touches of Sondheim or Kander and Ebb.
The best song, I Won't Send Roses (Mack's admission that he's not romantic despite his real feelings), has become a standard, and the torch song Time Heals Everything and the big Dolly/Mame number When Mabel Comes In The Room are also first-rank Herman.
But, Andrew Lloyd Webber notwithstanding, three songs do not make a show, and most of what comes in between, mainly the plot stuff, is so mechanical and by-the-numbers that neither the two central characters nor their world become real enough to make us care.
Think Jerry Herman shows and you think big production numbers, with choreography by Gower Champion (as the original production had).
Director John Doyle's signature Watermill Theatre style is stripped down to a small stage and small cast, with the performers all (in this case except David Soul) doubling as orchestra, playing their instruments onstage when not (and sometimes while) acting.
It is a style that sometimes works brilliantly, as in Doyle's recentre-imagining of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. But here it takes away the expansive joy that is part of Jerry Herman's vision - a song like Hundreds of Girls, Mack's salute to his famous bathing beauties, but without any actual girls, or When Mabel Comes In The Room not allowed to be the Dolly-style show-stopper it desperately wants to be - and merely exposes the thinness of the story and characterisations.
David Soul has a strong stage presence, and his speaking voice has gravelled to sound exactly like Robert Preston. But his singing range is about three notes and his projection so weak that he is repeatedly drowned out even with a microphone. If this is the first time you ever hear I Won't Send Roses, you can have no idea how good a song it is.
Janie Dee has charm galore and works like a demon, even dancing her little heart out in Tap Your Troubles Away (another number that just doesn't work small-scale).
She makes the most out of Time Heals Everything, and justly stops the show with it, but the book and production give her too little to work with, and she tends to drift into the background, unable to give the kind of star performance the role wants.
This revival will drift away soon, like all the others. In the old, old Broadway days of Berlin, Porter and Kern, the composer would have extracted the best songs and just plugged them into his next show. That's not done anymore, so we must look to the original cast album and the repertoires of the best cabaret singers, where what is best about Mack and Mabel - the songs - will live on.
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