When composer/ lyricist Jerry Herman discovered in 1974 that his musical 'Mack and Mabel' was to close after just 66 performances of its debut production, he must have been gutted and bewildered, because the show contains a clutch of the most melodic tunes ever written. It's still hard to comprehend even though the 'flop' has been dissected ad nauseam. Maybe audiences weren't quite ready for it, or maybe the casting wasn't right, who knows. What is certain is that Herman already had huge success under his belt from 'Hello Dolly' (1964) and 'Mame' (1966). But 'Mack and Mabel' seems to have been Herman’s favourite 'baby', which must have made the disappointment that much greater. Thankfully, the show's initial failure in the mid 70s hasn't stopped producers in the UK tackling the piece, though it’s not performed as often as one might wish.
Ten years after the show first opened, its popularity was given a well-deserved boost from an unusual source. In 1984, skating partners Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean ice-danced their way to an Olympic gold medal using the overture to 'Mack and Mabel' as their musical accompaniment. The event was broadcast on BBC TV, and awoke massive interest among the UK public. Subsequently, the original cast recording shot to 6th place in the charts almost overnight. Eavesdropping on conversations as I left the theatre, I noticed a number of the audience already loved the music, but few seemed to have seen the show before or knew much about the plot.
Directed by John Doyle, this production started life in 2005 at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury. It's been given a kind of 'lean and mean' treatment by Doyle, who's opted for a small-scale format and hired actor-musicians to both make the music and take part in the action too. It's an appealing and well-executed format that suits both the subject matter and Jerry Herman's music, lending an intimate quality to the sombre piece which a more extravagant production would not provide. The overall result of Doyle's approach is to give 'Mack and Mabel' the kind of atmosphere found in 'Cabaret'. With only one set and a relatively small stage at the Criterion theatre, there's a definite club-like feel to the proceedings. There's also a relatively small ensemble of 9 actor/musicians with the addition of the two leads: David Soul as Mack and Janie Dee as Mabel.
The story is about the love affair between Mack Sennett - silent comedy filmmaker and studio boss of the early 20th century - and Mabel Normand, the rather mysteriously beautiful young actress Sennett discovered and raised to stardom. As the show begins, we join an ageing Sennett alone on an empty film set looking back on his filmmaking career and remembering his first meeting with Mabel. The action dives back in time to relive their tortuous relationship, taking us through the development of some of Sennett's successes such as the 'Keystone Cops' along the way. Incidentally, it was Mabel Normand who is credited with having thrown the first 'custard pie' in a movie - one of the hallmarks of Sennett's innovative and renowned comedic style. During the play, we're treated to some black and white clips of Sennett's films.
Even though much of the music in ‘Mack and Mabel’ is played 'on the move' as it were, I didn't detect any appreciable difference in the overall quality than if the musicians had been residing in a traditional 'pit'. In fact in some instances the music actually sounded better and more resonant for being on-stage. And Doyle's direction manipulates the action effectively to bring out the individual musical elements whilst maintaining the overall integrity of Sarah Travis's orchestrations. There's good use of percussion, which helps underline highlights as well as suggest poignancy. Overall, the music was performed well given that several of the musicians were doubling-up on instruments. The talented Sarah Whittuck even managed to get in some tap dancing in the 'Tap Your Troubles Away' number as well as playing her alto sax and doubling-up on percussion (though not all at once). And the actor/ musicians also sing their way through the show as the chorus - no-one can say these actors don’t give value for money!
Good instrumental work and singing in the chorus though, isn’t enough to make 'Mack and Mabel' work. The key lies in the principals. And here I'm afraid is where the show falls down because both Janie Dee and David Soul just don't have the required vocal calibre. Much of the time, Soul was straining to hit the right notes, and the power of his voice left a great deal to be desired. Although we can appreciate that he’s playing an old man, it’s not a credible excuse for his limitations. The fact is, he really isn’t a very good singer. In this case, I think Doyle got the casting wrong even if he needed a name to draw crowds to the box office. Doyle did better though with Janie Dee, but not that much better. Dee certainly has the looks for the part and her acting ability was sound, though unexceptional. But she also had some difficulty with the higher notes in some of her songs. On a couple of occasions, it rather sounded as though someone had just jumped on some bagpipes, because her vocal quality suddenly and alarmingly changed. It wasn’t all bad though, but neither Soul nor Dee really delivered the goods for Herman’s brilliant songs.
However, in spite of all that, the audience were highly appreciative. And even with the limitations of the lead vocalists, I also found the show interesting and enjoyable. But that may have more to do with the music. It's almost impossible to leave 'Mack and Mabel' without humming one of its infectiously melodic songs. My particular favourite is 'I won't send roses' which has to be one of the great haunting melodies of all times. I just wish that this show had managed to cast someone with a bit more vocal sparkle to give it the justice it truly deserves.
What the popular press had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Elegantly down-sized revival...emerges as no more than a set of Herman's poignant or jauntily old-fashioned songs." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "Not even the combined talents of Janie Dee and David Soul can lift John Doyle's simplifed staging ...above the status of a mild curiosity." CHARLES SPENCER for THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "It is a superbly tuneful and touching piece." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, "The first half is enjoyable enough, but the second seems rushed and muddled and the ending reeks of Broadway wishfulness."