Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, June, 2002
Mack and Mabel is a legendary flop. It opened on Broadway in the fall of 1974 with the legendary Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters in the title roles. It has a score by the legendary Jerry Herman (composer of Hello, Dolly! and Mame), was directed and choreographed by the legendary Gower Champion, and produced by the legendary David Merrick. And I think the reason it has fascinated theatre buffs ever since is that even with all those stellar credentials, it was a dismal failure, running less than two months.
And the reason for its failure on Broadway is evident in the production currently running at the Mac-Haydn, it is a terrible show. The score is entertaining in places, but the book, by Michael Stewart, is atrocious. Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand were real people (click on either name to read an interesting bio), which is more than can be said for the characters in this show who bear their names. If you are going to write about real people, you should try to depict some semblance of their real lives. I came away from the theatre last night under the impression that talking pictures ruined Mack Sennett. I woke up this morning, turned on the old movie channel, and was greeted by a series of hilarious Mack Sennett shorts starring W.C. Fields, a walking, talking W.C. Fields. Taking artistic liberties is one thing – the von Trapp family did flee Austria, but they didn’t duck out dramatically at the end of a concert – but misrepresenting persons living or dead is not art, it is just plain sloppy.
The original creative team never did decide what they wanted Mack and Mabel to be – a slapstick comedy about the silent film era, a love story, or a biography. And if it was to be a biography, whose? Sennett and Normand were lovers who worked together off and on, but their relationship was just one aspect of their lives. An interesting play or musical could probably be written about either one of them, as they were fascinating people, but there isn’t enough time to tell both of their stories properly in one evening.
But failure is sometimes more fascinating than success. It would not have been remarkable at all if Herman, Champion, Merrick, Preston and Peters had teamed up to create a hit, but people are drawn to explore their failure. I scrambled excitedly to the box office the first time an opportunity to see Mack and Mabel presented itself to me in 1999. What had I missed? Would a new production reveal a diamond in the rough? Was this a show whose time had finally come? That production had been retooled by Jerry Herman himself, and it was still deeply flawed. The show at the Mac-Haydn was substantially different from what I saw in 1999, so I assume they are presenting the original Broadway version. It is much worse.
The Mac-Haydn considers itself a place where rising young talent can gain experience and hone their skills. I always enjoy seeing the energetic and talented company they bring together each year. But asking young performers to try to right wrongs that the masters of Broadway couldn’t overcome is risky. Steven Michael Zack and Shantelle Whitehead are young. They are talented singers, but they do not have enough acting skills yet to help bring these inaccurately written portraits of Sennett and Normand to life.
The rest of the company throws pies, performs pratfalls, and tap dances relentlessly, but who cares? Once again, this is the fault of the poor material they are given to work with and not a failure on their part. This is essentially the same cast who moved me to tears last week presenting the near-perfectly crafted The Sound of Music. If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.
I am amazed at how uneven Jimm Halliday’s costume designs can be. He provided seemingly hundreds of good-looking outfits for The Sound of Music, and yet he is unable to dress Sennett’s Bathing Beauties attractively or historically accurately. His costumes for Whitehead’s Mabel are breathtaking, but the wig he has slapped on Kelly L. Shook as hoofer Lottie Ames should have been shot on sight. Halliday obviously has talent but not consistency.
If you are real fan of Broadway musicals it is worth seeing Mack and Mabel at least once in your life. There are a couple of really great songs, and the pie-throwing, gorilla-chasing, and flashy tap-dancing are fun, and it is interesting so see where all those talented people went wrong building this show.
Mack and Mabel runs through June 16 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Rt. 203 in Chatham, NY. The show runs two and a quarter hours with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 518-392-9292 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2002