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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Criterion, London

By David Benedict

  Mack and Mabel at the Criterion

Musicals don’t die, they live on not only in the memory of those who saw them but in the record and CD collections of those who wish they had. But enduring disc life is as much illusion as faithful rendering of a show for one simple reason: it presents the songs floating free of the one thing that ties them together into a satisfying theatrical whole: the book.

Even a director as smart as John Doyle, whose terrific actor-musician version of Sweeney Todd is now on Broadway, can lose sight of the all-important book when faced with a cast album as glorious as that of the original 65-performance run of Jerry Herman’s Mack and Mabel. Only that can explain his impressively staged but misguided resurrection.

Since its legendary initial flop, this show has had more remodellings than the Bride of Wildenstein. Every version has reminded everyone that although Herman sure as hell writes showstoppers, this immensely sing-able theater piece about moviemakers who didn’t even talk is structurally…how shall I put this…flawed.

Plotwise, this is a Svengali love-story between Twenties movie director Mack Sennett (David Soul), who made kid-from-the-deli Mabel Normand (Janie Dee) into a star who fell in love with him, even as he worked her to distraction and drug addiction. She leaves him but never stops loving him, he comes to understand, but it’s all too late: cue much pathos.

Nothing in that scenario is too intimidating to work-hell, it’s not a million miles away from the infinitely superior On The Twentieth Century or even 42nd Street. What it needs, however, is far stronger drama between the songs than Herman cooks up during them.

Book writer Michael Stewart-and Francine Pascal who has done this round of rewrites-make a rod for their own backs by having Mack mainly in show-and-tell mode, narrating the story with scenes cutting in and out of Mack’s direct-address to the audience. That’s the theater equivalent of voice-over, the refuge of the dramatically desperate, and unless you’re as skilled as Scorsese in "Taxi Driver" or "Goodfellas" you’d be wise to avoid it. Musicals are about passionate presence, and audiences want to feel what the characters are going through, not the distancing effect of hearing about it.

Doyle’s ensemble make their musicianship do the drama. And there’s serious talent to marvel at as the company accompany themselves with Sarah Travis’s superb, jazz-era orchestrations. Saucer-eyed Janie Dee amusingly adds multiple comedy percussion effects to Mabel’s pratfalls, while Tomm Coles’s Frank (alto and soprano sax plus flute), Sarah Whitttuck’s Lottie (alto sax and percussion) and Matthew Woodyatt’s Fatty (euphonium, double-bass and percussion) switch between scenes and instruments with aplomb, have serious voices, and even kick up a splendid "Tap Your Troubles Away" routine.

Dee’s winning comic gift makes her a convincing screen comedienne, but Doyle and Mark Bailey’s production design creates a world reliant upon projected images of the real Mabel, which leaves Dee looking extra to requirements. More worryingly, her voice simply isn’t strong enough to deliver the torch song "Time Heals Everything," upon which her character rests.

David Soul, meanwhile, channels the late Robert Preston and produces some characterful musical phrasing. But he overdoses gruff seriousness at the fatal expense of all charm. Without it, Mabel’s infatuation and the dramatic thread make no sense which, despite the production’s very best efforts, leads one inexorably back to the original conclusion: nice score, shame about the show.


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