Mack and Mabel (Chichester Festival Theatre)
Michael Ball and Rebecca LaChance star in this revival of Jerry Herman's 1974 musical
Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart's 1974 musical, charting the troubled love affair between silent movie director Mack Sennett and his two-reeler star Mabel Normand, as the motion picture industry gets going, audibly, around them, has had a patchy history in this country.
The problems remain the same, despite the revisions to the book by Francine Pascal (who worked with Stewart on the first musical I ever saw on Broadway, George M!) that place the story in Mack's memory, and a production by Jonathan Church that is a relatively successful match-up between a so-what love story and some of Broadway's best ballads, torch songs and insidiously melodic chorus numbers.
It helps a lot, too, that the acting is so good. Michael Ball's demon barber of Fleet Street was no flash in the shaving bowl; his Mack the-not-too-serrated knife is a stooped, grey-suited figure with an outlandish kiss curl who goes from studio floor martinet to reminiscent romantic in a smoothly articulated arc.
Rebecca LaChance, who played Carole King in Beautiful on Broadway, makes a winning UK debut as the conflicted Mabel, though she doesn't make her descent into cocaine-fuelled despair quite as alarming, or technically extraordinary, as Janie Dee did in the most recent West End presentation of this show nine years ago.
That John Doyle production was a stripped-down, improvisatory format with lavish film insets. Church's version has an appropriately spartan quality about it but doesn't stint on the razzmatazz, either, and the two styles are successfully married, from the minute musical director Robert Scott strikes up the band for the overture - spiky and lush at the same time - made famous by Torvill and Dean's ice-skating heroics at the 1984 Olympic Games.
Like Singin' in the Rain (which Church directed here and in the West End) Mack and Mabel is poised at the birth of the talkies in Hollywood, and a decisive lurch towards more "psychological" acting, represented by Mark Inscoe's dapper and persuasive William Desmond Taylor, tugging Mabel out of her comfort zone. Other enjoyable references are made to movie legends Frank Capra (Gunnar Cauthery) and Fatty Arbuckle (Jack Edwards), who, like Desmond Taylor, was later embroiled in scandal and murder.
The action covers two tumultuous decades starting in Sennett's Keystone Studio in 1911, where Mack launches Mabel whom he discovers working in a deli - "the girl with the pickles who hustles for nickels" - and ushers through his wonderful set pieces of the bathing beauties ("Hundreds of Girls") and the Keystone cops themselves, brilliantly choreographed by Stephen Mear.
The show, for the first time, very nearly works as a drama, while also exposing the slight shortage of songs. But what songs they are - Mack's beautiful, provisional love song, "I Won't Send Roses," impeccably executed by Ball; Mabel's sardonic response "Wherever He Ain't" and show-stopping (well, nearly) "Time Heals Everything"; and, best of all, the Act Two opener "When Mabel Comes In The Room," which has the identical, lilting quality of Herman's Dolly Levi having a similar effect on another swaying room.