It’s big musical time at Chichester Festival Theatre and we’re back at the dawn of movies for Jerry Herman & Michael Stewart’s homage to the silent screen, Mack & Mabel.
The Broadway blockbuster is almost a prequel to the theatre’s 2011 hit, Singin’ In The Rain. Both reveal director Jonathan Church’s affection for films and, in particular, the silent era.
Mack & Mabel is about two great legends of the time, film director and studio boss Mack Sennett and rising star Mabel Normand.
Sennett specialised in slapstick and silent movies. He gave us the Keystone Kops and an archive of tremendous comedies featuring the likes of Chaplin, Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle.
But, if this show is to be believed, he discovered Mabel, put her in front of a camera, and made her a star (as well as indulging in something of a mutually convenient fling).
Michael Ball returns to musicals with a dazzling turn as the fractious Sennett. The voice is as powerful as ever but it may take you a moment or two to recognise the singing star.
Ball’s charisma leads the production. Mack & Mabel is a wonderful showcase for him and only endorses his previous award-winning successes in musical theatre.
The large ensemble, brilliant as they are, are very much support actors to Ball’s egotistical, enthusiastic and cold-hearted Sennett, and emerging star, Rebecca LaChance, as Mabel.
The splendid character actor Jack Edwards had little to do other than fill the stage as the outsized talent of comedy actor Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle while Anna-Jane Casey, as wise-cracking Sennett stalwart Lottie, chain-smoked until her moment in the spotlight with the show-stopping Tap Your Troubles Away.
This spectacular number was right on the money and won loud applause from the audience.
It was very flashy, very Jonathan Church. The director has an eye for a memorable set piece and he indulged us with two.
In the first Act it was Hundreds of Girls (best not to listen too closely to the very un-PC lyrics), given the Busby Berkeley treatment with some clever video projections from designer Jon Driscoll, that was a real highlight.
Herman & Stewart stick reasonably closely to the true story. Sennett was in at the birth of movies and worked with a remit to make audiences laugh. He specialised in the two-reeler, shorts that featured the Keystone Cops, custard pie fights and lots of comic violence.
Mabel walked into the studio one day and he hired her on the spot, teaching her how to become a great knockabout star – until poor working conditions and a “lack of artistic integrity” forced the ambitious star (and, by now, drug addict) to look elsewhere for bigger and better roles.
Sennett carries on but eventually the money runs out and the great Keystone Studios are under threat.
Michael Ball storms through every scene to dominate the show and he does it admirably. His Sennett is proud, cantankerous, incapable of lovey-dovey romance, and totally committed to the next movie. It’s a heartfelt and entirely believable turn as the pioneer movie-maker.
Rebecca LaChance shines as the girl next door who, more by luck than anything, finds herself a silent movie star who suffers for the price of fame.
Mack & Mabel plays at Chichester Festival Theatre until September 5 and will then tour.
October 1-10, Theatre Royal, Plymouth October 12-24, Manchester Opera House October 27-November 7, Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin November 10-21, Edinburgh Playhouse November 23-28, Theatre Royal, Nottingham December 1-6, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff.
*This is an amended review from an earlier draft.
Mack & Mabel
Broadway musical Mack & Mabel revisits early Hollywood for a story about movie-maker Mack Sennett and ambitious silent screen comedy actress Mabel Normand. Starring Michael Ball and Rebecca LaChance.