Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June, 1999
This is one of those fabulous flops that enters into modern theatre folk-lore. “Mack and Mabel” ran this than two months in its initial Broadway outing in 1974, but people still talk about it. Because of this continued interest it is often produced in regional theatres where it draws crowds of curiosity seekers like me, along with folks who just like a musical, any musical.
The Mack of the title is film comedy pioneer Mack Sennet, and Mabel is his leading comedienne, Mabel Normand. The show takes place from the time of their first meeting on the set of one of Sennet’s Keystone comedies, until 1929, two years before Normand’s death by tuberculosis.
Sennet and Normand were real people, talented people, deeply flawed people. But this show, with a revised book by Francine Pascal, presents them as little more than the two-dimensional clowns with which Sennet filled his two-reelers. Sennet made films at warp speed, Normand alone made 53 two-reelers with him in one ten month period, and this show seems determined to break that record. The result is you learn very little about Mack Sennet and Mabel Normand. But you have a heck of a good time along the way.
Jerry Herman, who did the music and lyrics for “Hello Dolly!” and “Mame” has churned out another great big, old-fashioned musical. I can see why “Mack and Mabel” still packs ’em in – it is in the same style as Herman’s other popular shows, but this is one you haven’t seen a hundred times already. Unfortunately, in trying to make his music evoke pre-depression America. Herman manages to evoke only one aspect of it. All the songs sound the same. It is like listening to the same silent film score over and over and over and over.
Herman is known for his great big bring-on-the-leading-lady-in-the-second-act songs – notably the title songs of “Hello, Dolly!” and “Mame”. Sure enough, Mabel gets greeted several times over by the entire cast in the number “When Mabel Walks in the Room” when she makes a triumphant return to Keystone Studios after a four year absence occasioned by a romantic falling out with Sennet. At one moment the echoes of “Hello, Dolly!” were so strong in teh music that I felt like rising from my seat and screaming at the orchestra that they had the wrong show.
But these are all problems with the show itself. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Barrington Stage’s production of it. They have brought in a top-notch equity cast, able directed by BSC Artistic Director Julianne Boyd and choreographed by Hope Clarke. This is an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza, and it looks and sounds just great.
Jeff McCarthy, who had a major role in another short-lived but much discussed Broadway musical “Side Show”, is a big brassy Mack Sennett. Kelli Rabke, who can be heard as the Narrator on the U.S. cast recording of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”, is his match as the tiny, talented Mabel. Also a stand out in the cast is Kathryn Kendall as Lottie, Sennet’s “washed up hoofer”.
Everyone looks just spiffy in Jeffrey Fender’s costumes on Kenneth Foy’s sets, both of which could change so quickly it was mind boggling. In one scene Rabke changed costumes on stage about five times in a ten minute span. See what I mean about breaking that speed record?
The Keystone Cops get their number, and the Sennet Bathing Beauties strut their stuff, all of which is very entertaining but the show isn’t called “The Keystone Comedy Revue” its called “Mack and Mabel”. You see Fatty Arbuckle (Ric Stoneback) throughout, but where are Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel, Carole Lombard, and the many other comedy stars who got their start with Sennet? If we can’t learn more about Mack and Mabel, then bring on the people who worked with them.
Especially disappointing is the ending of the show. Normand died at age 35 of tuberculosis in 1930. She was a drug addict whose life was awash with scandal through her close involvement with two Hollywood murders. The “happy ending” reunion with Sennet in 1929 which closes this show never happened in real life. And the program notes on Normand’s life provided by Barrington Stage make that very clear.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999