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The International Writers Magazine
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Mack & Mabel
Music & Lyrics by Jerry Herman
Book by Michael Stewart Revised by Francine Pascal
Directed by John Doyle
Arrangements and musical direction by Sarah Travis

Starring David Soul and Janie Dee.
Review by Ben Macpherson

A
bout a decade ago I heard Tom Conti sing a song called ‘I Won’t Send Roses’. It affected me greatly. I cannot explain why, but for a long time I searched in vain to find the origins of this song. Upon discovering it was from the Jerry Herman show ‘Mack & Mabel’, I set out in search of a recording.

However, ten years or so passed and I forgot about my enthusiasm, waylaid with other things. That song was still with me though. So, I was intrigued and delighted to see that the show had been revived and was playing near me during its UK tour. Added to my initial enthusiasm which prompted the memory of that one song, the show was directed by John Doyle, whose work with Musical Director Sarah Travis on the recent smash hit revival of Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Sweeney Todd’ was both original and fresh, with consummate professionalism in his use of actor-musicians. Seeing that this last production of his prompted me to explore ‘Sweeney Todd’ as part of my degree work, I couldn’t help but wonder what ‘Mack & Mabel’ may hold. I booked up and went along.

Having heard luke-warm reports about David Soul who was starring as Mack Sennett, I was intrigued to see this man, whose name I have heard on and off all my life, most recently associated of course with the controversial ‘Jerry Springer – The Opera’. His opposite, ‘Mabel’, was played by Janie Dee who I had previously loved in her role with Tim Flavin in the Gershwin musical ‘My One & Only’.

With a modest set and a modest cast, it was never set to be a big-scale Epic, but ‘Sweeney’ had engendered a strong emotional reaction from me and thus I was eager for the same last Friday night. Before proceeding with a review of the production, the story itself concerns the lives and loves of two real life characters, Mack Sennett – silent movie Director in the 1920’s and Mabel Normand, his star and wife/ex-wife/wife. That last statement more or less sums up the show. It turns out that he hires her for Keystone Pictures, so that Paramount doesn’t snap her up, even though her humble beginnings mean that she is "plain little Nelly, the kid from the deli". It transpires that unwittingly he is more married to his pictures than to real life (which makes for a touching "I’ll Give You A Happy Ending" number to end a dark and melodramatic show). Their marriage hits the rocks through a series of "Shoot this picture"; "No"; "Fine, I’ll leave you"; "Fine, you’re fired" plot developments. Added to this, in the second half it turns out that she is a coke addict (the drug not the drink), and he takes her back, with them presumably becoming destitute.

But life, ever the motion picture waiting to happen, ends on the bittersweet song mentioned above.
A fairly bleak and bland picture. ‘Sweeney Todd’ was far darker and yet contained far more elements with which Doyle could execute his vision, and it does have to be said that in all honesty it felt like it having seen this production. The ensemble musicians, some of whom had cameo roles but whose names it didn’t seem worth looking up in the over-priced programme, moved around the stage as they had been directed. But one got the sense that they were simply doing that; not acting, just going through the motions.

This production seemed a good idea which wasn’t quite out of the preview stage. One main factor I believe contributed to this was the appalling sound design. It was at times difficult to make out the jokes when only one or two were singing them! Janie Dee, who played the naïve Mabel didn’t exactly shine as expected and witnessed in previous shows and towards the end of Act One she even missed a good few of her notes. The second act (by which point I had changed seats as the stalls were half empty, in the hope of getting a better view and sound) was not all that much improved. There was a number called ‘Tap Your Troubles Away’ which contained a dance. The dance. All of a sudden, the cast began razzle-dazzle tap dancing in the middle of a show which hadn’t previously drawn on this sort of Broadway tradition! Incongruous to say the least! An ill chosen idea, executed by a mediocre cast made this a bizarre moment. Also, it seems that whilst I really enjoy the artistic handling of actor-musicians it didn’t seem that this ensemble were as comfortable with the idea as even I was as an audience member. In short, the saving grace was the wonderful score of Jerry Hermann and the real lead of David Soul who sang amazingly well with sensitivity and commanded the stage with focus and drive.

In my opinion, this show didn’t work as a black-box scale down. However, fans of the music, or of David Soul may well be interested to know that this show is on tour until 5th April after which it transfers to the Criterion Theatre in London’s West End. Let’s hope it arrives with a better overall cast, more intimate setting and decent sound! Those who may wish to see a professional cast and a superbly original production of Sweeney Todd may also like to know that it too is on tour. For more information see www.mackandmabel.co.uk and www.sweeneytoddthemusical.co.uk.

© Ben Macpherson Feb 22nd 2006

Previews - MANCHESTER Palace Theatre (Mon 27 Feb - Sat 4 March) GUILDFORD Yvonne Arnaud (Mon 6 - Sat 11 Mar), EASTBOURNE Devonshire Park Theatre (Mon 13 - Sat 18 March), NOTTINGHAM Theatre Royal (Mon 20 - Sat 25 March) Book via Ticketmaster

Ben own musical 'The Eigth Square' will be playing at the New Theatrre Royal in Portsmouth in May in 2006

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