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Mack is Back

Michael Portantiere reviews L.A. Reprise! revision of the Jerry Herman cult musical Mack & Mabel. logo
Jane Krakowski and Douglas Sills
in Mack & Mabel
(Photo: Tom Drucker)
The L.A. Reprise! production of Mack & Mabel might be termed "traditional." Just like every previous incarnation of the show--on Broadway, in London, at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey--this new staging at the Freud Playhouse in Los Angeles prompts deep adoration of Jerry Herman's score and great disappointment with Michael Stewart's book. Though that pesky book has been revised, re-revised, and now re-re-revised, it remains the albatross around the neck of a show that would otherwise have long since become a classic rather than a cult musical. (The original Broadway production starred Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters under the direction of Gower Champion, yet it ran only two months.)

For all of you non-cultists, Mack & Mabel tells the fictionalized true story of silent film pioneer Mack Sennett and his on again-off again relationship with Mabel Normand, a Flatbush waitress whom Sennett thrusts into one of his early flicks. Mabel falls in love with Mack, and it's mutual, though he assures from the get-go not to expect him to behave in time-honored romantic fashion ("I Won't Send Roses.") Mack and company move to L.A. and their hilarious two-reelers become wildly popular, with Mabel as star. But she succumbs to the blandishments of director William Desmond Taylor, who steals her away from Mack by convincing her that she could display her "artistic integrity" as a real actress in his feature-length dramas. (Unfortunately, Taylor also introduces Mabel to recreational drugs.) The show darkens in the second act as Mack and Mabel unsuccessfully attempt to reconcile. In the end, Mabel is ruined by her drug habit and her involvement in the scandal of Taylor's murder.

For the Reprise! production, the late Michael Stewart's original book has been revised by his sister, Francine Pascal. To be honest, Stewart was never in the front rank of musical theater librettists (Hello, Dolly! notwitstanding), and Pascal's credits are even spottier. One is tempted to ask whether or not her blood relationship to the author was good enough reason to entrust her with the revision of this highly problematic show. I don't know Mack & Mabel well enough to detail exactly what changes Pascal has made, but I will point out that the current version relies heavily on some of the hoariest devices in dramatic history. Not only is the entire show framed as a flashback, but insult is added to injury as Mack keeps jumping out of the action to talk directly to the audience. (There are a couple of scenes in which he does this three or four times!) The handling of exposition in Mack & Mabel is also inept, with characters constantly running on to tell us about events that happened offstage or to make such proclamations as, "It's 1922!"

It would have taken a great director to surmount the myriad problems of the Stewart-Pascal book; to say that Arthur Allan Seidelman has not risen to the challenge is an understatement. The show proceeds at a leaden pace as the actors indulge in weird, Pinteresque pauses. Of course, this is precisely the wrong approach to second- and third-rate dialogue that should be delivered as quickly as possible in order to get us to the next fabulous song.

Fabulous, indeed. Herman has been quoted as saying that Mack & Mabel is his own favorite of his scores and, for once, this doesn't represent a deluded genius championing the underdog for purely emotional reasons. Sharp character tunes ("Movies Were Movies," "Look What Happened to Mabel," "Wherever He Ain't"), roof-raising production numbers ("Big Time," "When Mabel Comes In The Room"), and a kick-ass torch song ("Time Heals Everything") are guaranteed to send any Mack & Mabel audience into paroxysms of bliss, no matter how inadequate the show may be in other areas.

Donna McKechnie, Jane Krakowski,
and Douglas Sills in Mack & Mabel
(Photo: Tom Drucker)
The really good news about the Reprise! M&M is that it has been cast from strength. Douglas Sills, a bona-fide matinee idol in The Scarlet Pimpernel, is just as charismatic as Mack. With a meticulous New York accent, body language unique to the character, and a trim moustache, Sills' Mack Sennett is refreshingly different from his Percy in Pimpernel. Vocally, he's better than ever, delivering his songs in keys much higher than the Robert Preston originals. (I believe they're the same keys favored by Howard McGillin for the London production).

Jane Krakowski, who has gained fame as a cast member of TV's Ally McBeal, makes a welcome return to the stage as Mabel. Though she has some difficulty negotiating the soft, high-lying passages of the "I Won't Send Roses" reprise, Krakowski impresses mightily with her full-throttle belt in "Wherever He Ain't" and "Time Heals Everything," and her adorable stage presence keeps the audience on her side from start to finish. The only major criticism of the performance is that Krakowski seems rather too contemporary in terms of style and demeanor; something as simple as a period hairstyle might have helped her in this regard.

As Lottie, the ex-vaudevillian who falls in with Mack, Broadway veteran Donna McKechnie is perfection. She's especially irresistible leading "Tap Your Troubles Away," a number that offers the best of Dan Siretta's inconsistent choreography. The on-stage, 17 piece orchestra--larger than usual for Reprise!--plays well for musical director Peter Matz, even if the string section is slightly underpowered.

It's really a shame that the whole of Mack & Mabel remains less than the sum of its parts, and it all comes down to a lack of trust in the intelligence and maturity of audiences. Though "I Promise You a Happy Ending," sung by Mack to Mabel, is one of Herman's finest ballads, the show's creators would have done well not to take the song's sentiment so literally. The Reprise! staging ends with a reconciliation between the pair (Mack changes his tune and tells Mabel, "I might send roses") but, in reality, Mabel Normand died of a drug overdose. To leave that information out of this show is as disingenuous as ending the Julie Andrews movie Star! with Gertrude Lawrence at the peak of her career, rather than dying painfully during the run of The King and I. It also calls to mind the misguided attempt to construct a more "upbeat" version of Stephen Sondheim's Follies for that show's London debut. These are stories of people who experience the thrilling highs of life followed by the harsh realities of sorrow and death. To assume that paying customers won't accept that kind of narrative in the context of a stage musical is foolish. (West Side Story, anyone?) When Mack & Mabel is inevitably given another go-around, maybe the folks in charge will have enough faith in this ultimately sad tale to tell it unflinchingly.

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