John Doyle’s inventive production of the classic Jerry Herman musical has arrived in the West End with a new leading lady. Janie Dee takes over from Anna-Jane Casey to play the cute and quirky “girl from the deli” Mabel, who becomes a world famous movie star under the guidance of David Soul’s impressive and over-bearing filmmaker Mack.
The music has an enjoyably familiar feel to it – it’s as if everyone is somehow born with a knowledge of Herman’s memorable score – and is played by the talented actor/musicians who make up the eleven-strong company.
Soul’s rendition of “I Won’t Send Roses” is particularly moving, and Dee is an endearing and sprightly Mabel. The rest of the cast portray various producers, script writers, actors and other roles with gusto, though it's sometimes unclear exactly who's who.
Designer Mark Bailey makes clever use of projections to show Mack’s visions and clips of his famous two-reelers on a white curtain, and Richard G Jones’ lighting gives the feeling of being on a film set.
- Caroline Ansdell
NOTE: The following FOUR-STAR review dates from May 2005 and this production's earlier Newbury run.
Mack is Mack Sennett, pioneer of the short two-reeler movie. Mabel is his muse, Mabel Normand, heroine of those silent comedies. The chemistry between the pair made cinema history - and inspired Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart to celebrate their story in this sparky show.
Real-life stories tend to get embellished on the silver screen. So the first meeting Herman and Stewart devise for the pair is the stuff of legends. Just as his movies’ backers are demanding novelty to protect their investment, cue Mabel, the kookie sandwich delivery girl, in whom Mack instantly detects star quality. The cameras love her and her natural gift for comedy - prat falls a speciality - saves the studio. In reality Mabel was the daughter of a vaudeville pianist, a photographic model and by sixteen she was at Biograph working with Sennett.
The Herman/Stewart version of the story brings the pair together on and off set as Mabel, fifteen years Mack’s junior, yearns for him from day one. He proves he’s not your average romantic lead though, as he tells Mabel in his big number, I won’t send roses. The show charts their fortunes in Hollywood – we’re in on the birth of the Keystone Cops and the Bathing Beauties line up. But Mabel leaves when she’s thwarted in her desire to star in a serious full-length film and her life is plagued by scandal and illness. In a touching, subtle climax, Mack promises to rewrite the sad end of Mabel’s life – art revising rather than imitating life, just as the show does.
John Doyle’s terrific production beautifully carries through this idea by creating an upfront performance style that echoes the slapstick fun of the films without ever parodying them. He’s wonderfully served by Mark Bailey’s versatile multi-level set, appropriately incorporating a screen which can conceal, and reveal as needed, and Richard Jones’ atmospheric lighting.
Musically, this is one of the most exciting shows I’ve ever seen at this venue, from the moment the company burst on stage for the opening number. Doyle’s trademark use of hugely talented actor/singer/musicians pays dividends. There’s a real thrill as they criss-cross the stage like a marching band and thanks to musical director Robert Cousins’, energy levels stay high. Satisfying light and shade in the orchestrations ensure the numbers get under your skin.
David Soul impresses and convinces as obsessive, autocratic movie-maker Mack, his first love movies rather than leading ladies. And Anna-Jane Casey has Mabel’s stage presence and comedic gift with spades. My only cavils are that the second half, at forty minutes, seems rushed in Francine Pascal’s revision, so the story isn’t clearly told. And the supporting characters, though played with dedication, aren’t properly delineated.