Mack and Mabel
Music & Lyrics by Jerry Herman
Book by Michael Stewart
Book revised by Francine Pascal
Directed by Jonathan Church
Designer Robert Jones
Choreographer Stephen Mear
Musical Director Robert Scott
Chichester Festival Theatre
Saturday 18th July 2015 14.30
Michael Ball as Mack Sennett
Rebecca LaChance as Mabel Normand
Anna Jane Casey as Lottie Ames
Ashley Andrews as Writer
Jack Edwards as Fatty (Fatty Arbuckle)
Mark Inscoe as William Taylor Desmond
Alex Gianni as Mr Bauman
Timothy Quinlan as Mr Kessel
Joseph Prouse as Eddie the Watchman / Freddie
Rebecca Louis as Ella
Andrew Waldron as Andy, the Grip
Gunner Cauthery as Frank Wyman
Michelle Francis as Iris The Wardrobe Mistress
Emily Shaw as Phylis Foster
Adam Denman as Serge
Sam Stones as Purser
Nicole Deon, Emily Langham, Jenny Legg, Joshua Lovell, Grace McKee, Rohan Richards, Zara Warren, Libby Watta
There were fourteen musicians in the orchestra, and I noticed that three video screens above the audience, facing the cast had a camera feed of the conductor.
Mabel returns to the Sennett company
I don’t usually do musicals, and then while I might be attracted to The Book of Mormon, Little Shop of Horrors or Once, I really don’t do classic Broadway musicals. I booked this one for three reasons: total trust in Chichester Festival Theatre after last season; Director Jonathan Church did Amadeus last year; and I spent a year studying early Hollywood for my thesis, and am fascinated by the Mabel Normand / William Taylor Desmond story. The original 1974 production was festooned with awards, but I didn’t know any of the songs. I looked at opinions on the original 1974, and I have the impression that outside the solid Broadway musical fan base, it didn’t cross over to wider appeal. Grease and The Rocky Horror Show were already on the scene, and Mack & Mabel is definitely “old school” in its musical score.
Michael Ball was also low on my radar … I know from the work I’ve been doing on record collecting, that his records appear in large numbers in charity shops … which mean lots of people bought them and also that some of them have passed away. So overall I went with lowish expectations. We’ve had a busy few weeks, theatrical overload almost, and I pondered giving away the tickets to my sister.
Well, let’s break any suspense. I loved every minute of it. It was a tour de force in stagecraft, singing, dance and acting. It got a (rare) spontaneous standing ovation, and as soon as we got back home we went online and booked tickets for next month to see it again with friends … the last time we did that was The Rehearsal … Another Chichester production. Chichester is doing well out of us this year. It is fascinating. We see a lot of theatre, but the acting base for musicals is largely different. I always think they’ll be cast on singing first, especially with a renowned singer like Michael Ball as the lead, but these people can sing, dance and also act at a level that would see them acclaimed in non-musical theatre.
The story starts off in flashback, with Sennett bankrupt, visiting the studio the night before it’s foreclosed. Then it explodes into life. We have a scene with Sennett directing a silent film back in Brooklyn. Lottie is the lead actress tied to a chair, a moustachioed villain is threatening to put her baby in the mangle. Lottie is starving hungry (Sennett is a notorious non-payer) and Mabel Normand arrives as the deli girl delivering a sandwich, and all hell is let loose as she tries to get her 15 cents paid. It’s tears down the face knockabout stuff, but it is also why we call these people “film directors.” In silent days, the director stood and shouted directions as the camera rolled … Stand up, walk to the table, smile …
There’s an equivalent major comic set piece later, set in Roman times with Fatty as Nero and everyone in Roman costume, and Mabel is getting fed up of Sennett’s dictatorial direction style. She wants to act, and mentions artistic integrity, a concept that Frank, the writer, has introduced her to. The result is a custard pie fight … Sennett and Normand are credited with inventing the pie in the face gag in reality.
The use of projected film is masterly, at a level I haven’t seen before, projected on a variety of screens and surfaces. The early one has Michael Ball lit and singing behind the projection screen with extracts from Sennett films, and the light makes him shine out in colour amidst the black and white film. They mix archive film, and I’m sure, new footage of Rebecca LaChance as Mabel Normand. Well, I’m almost sure. As well as being a great singer, dancer and actress, Ms LaChance is also extremely good-looking and having browsed a lot of images of Mabel Normand, looks like very much like her in some facial poses. But I’m sure that at least the scene in close up under the table (which is re-used at the end) is Rebecca. The scene on a horse in a cowboy chase? I’d have to see it again. They set it up on stage with a mechanism with a saddle and horses head.
They also project passing scenery. On the train journey west, the train engine puffs projected smoke. As does the passenger liner later. One exemplary piece of stagecraft is when Mabel Normand mounts the gangway to board the liner to Europe, it is turned round and becomes the ship’s deck railings and she sings while the New York skyline is projected slipping past as the ship sails away. That whole width of stage projection is used for waves in the bathing beauties dance.
The set design is stunning and mobile. There’s a vital scene where Mabel is standing on the observation platform of a train wending its way across the desert at night (a projected long train). Mack joins her, is invited to her sleeping compartment. The train set revolves and we’re in the train interior for the important love scene.
Other wonderful pieces? Lottie leading the tap dance routine and song; the bathing beauties with costumes changing from black and silver to colour one by one, the Keystone Cops tableaux and routines.
Mack Sennett (Michael Ball) and Mabel Normand (Rebecca LaChance)
The ending is genuinely touching and poignant. Mabel Normand has great dark rings under her eyes, she’s a little unsteady on her feet. The 1920s costume chosen for her resonates strongly with similar hippy era clothes … Janis Joplin?
The choreography and stage direction are incredible. As we came out, I thought I saw the director, Jonathan Church, by the door with an A4 pad in his hand and a smile on his face. The curtain calls were massive applause, changing to shouts when Anna Jane Casey took her solo bow, then instant standing ovation as soon as Michael Ball and Rebecca LaChance appeared. It’s less than a week in, and this spectacular production has everything going for it. After its Chichester run, it travels to Manchester and Edinburgh in October. I hope that like Gypsy last year, it eventually goes on to the West End.
Mabel returns to Sennett after her ‘serious’ career with Wlliam Desmond Taylor.
THE MUSICAL SCORE
I was thrilled by the full brassy sound of the orchestra, and all three soloists (Michael Ball, Rebecca LaChance and Anna Jane Casey) were superb. The voices soared. Fabulous.
Perhaps the musical is a “lesser known” one because while I enjoyed every second of the singing and music, I didn’t drive home afflicted with an “earworm.” There’s no Hello Dolly or even no Summer Nights or Suddenly Seymour in the music. That is no huge memorable hook in a song. That won’t hamper your enjoyment in the slightest. I’d buy a CD of this production on the spot, but I was not tempted by the CD of the 1974 production on sale.
We both felt that Jerry Herman should have written a closing duet … before Mabel Normand drifts off. They were so perfect together, we felt the need to hear them duet at the end. Still, he didn’t write one.
MACK & MABEL AS FILM HISTORY
The real Mabel Normand
It may be churlish to mention this, but I have lectured on Silent Film history, though not for nearly forty years, so I’m rusty. The musical is a work of fiction, and beautifully constructed. It’s not claiming to be a documentary, but while using a lot of real events, it often strays a long way from history.
At some point, the 1974 script was revised. The backers, Bauman & Kessell got the names of Sennett’s real backers rather than the fictional ones chosen by Michael Stewart in 1974. Fatty always was obviously Fatty Arbuckle, but that became explicit. The writer, Frank Wyman (as listed here) gets referred to as Frank Capra on stage. He is the writer of Molly, the feature film for Mabel Normand that Mack Sennett delayed making. Frank Capra did work for Sennett for a time, but certainly not in 1911 or 1912 (he was born in 1897) and he did not write the 1921 feature Molly O that Sennett produced with Mabel Normand. The musical implies that Sennett declined to make a feature film with her until she left and it was a way of getting her back to do Molly. In fact, they made Mickey together in 1918. This resulted in her being signed by Goldwyn for a then top rate of $3500 a week.
Mabel Normand’s talent gets sold short too, in that she directed several films, but was not credited, being female. While the Sennett crew moved to Hollywood together, it was not as an independent, but under the control of Biograph. Keystone was formed a year later.
The William Taylor Desmond story in books on film history has Desmond trying to help Normand with an existing cocaine addiction. Here ‘angel dust’ and heroin are mentioned, and it’s Desmond who introduces her to it. It’s cocaine in every Hollywood history, but perhaps cocaine was so common in media circles in 1974 that they felt the script needed something else that people would be repelled by. The idea of Desmond introducing her to drugs … which were widely used in early 1920s Hollywood … goes against a common strand in the many stories about his murder. That is that he had threatened to shop her suppliers to the police, and so was hit to prevent him. One of the fascinating stories, in itself fictionalised subsequently, is that Paramount Pictures cleaned up and removed evidence before calling the police. Against the professional hit story is that while recreational cocaine use was looked upon as decadent and would end movie careers if publicized, it was still legally available on prescription in California – it was fully prohibited in 1922, shortly after his death.
Fatty remains a positive character, and there is no mention of the real Fatty Arbuckle’s imminent future (when they leave Sennett, and he talks about their futures). on trial for the rape and manslaughter of a young actress.
Mack & Mabel: The Keystone Cops
The time scales are all over the place … Sennett was using “Bathing Beauties” long before Mabel Normand left, and the Keystone cops appear too late. I think they were wise to eradicate Charlie Chaplin, who had a major role in Sennett’s story, from the storyline … I’m sure there were legal pressures, but more importantly he would have overwhelmed the central Mack and Mabel story.
I think it’s in the 1911 or 1912 sequences (though I may be wrong and it’s in the 1933 flashback) that Sennett praises D.W. Griffith’s Birth of A Nation. That film was made in 1915.
SECOND TIME AROUND
Thursday 27th August 19.30
We went back with a friend who loves musicals, but hadn’t seen this one. In the light of all the controversy over the Cumberbatch Hamlet which justified three entire weeks of full-price “previews” on the grounds that productions need tweaking (a lot) once an audience is there, I was fascinated at seeing it again. Musicals not only bear re-watching, but because you’re more familiar with the tunes, improve in some ways. Compared to Broadway or West End productions this one is still young and certainly retains freshness. I didn’t note much if any tweaking, but they got it right the first time. However, there is always an edge of excitement (will we make it?) during the first week that inevitably smooths out. I like that first week edge.
What I did notice was detail … in the big scene like the first silent film (when Mabel arrives with a sandwich), and the Roman epic scene … so much is going on that you could watch it ten times and still see new aspects. In the Roman scene, I was focussing more on Jack Edwards’ (as Fatty) Roman emperor. His facial expressions and moves were hilarious.
Another detail I’d missed was that in the big Second Act tap dance, Mabel and William Taylor Desmond join the back, and Desmond dies (the murder) and is pulled off stage. Blink and you miss it.
Factually, today at least, Birth of A Nation is indeed mentioned in the 1933 flashback time frame, so OK (I’m not sure that isn’t a tweak. I can’t be the only one who noticed it), but D.W. Griffith is praised in the 1911 time frame. Possible. He made his first two-reeler in 1908, but unlikely as his first feature, Judith of Bathsheba was 1913.
I’d forgotten that Frank mentions that Mabel was taking dope in her time with Sennett, a result of his frantic shooting schedule. That takes Taylor off the hook of introducing her to it, but in this story he is giving it to her (partly for control). I hadn’t noticed that in the late dance sequence she is hoisted up high, and sniffing. Rebecca LaChance is even more charismatic on repeated viewing. With both her and Michael Ball I noticed the acting even more. Both absolutely first-rate.
It is still getting standing ovations. Note those Manchester and Edinburgh tour dates coming up.