Sensational Production of Jerry Herman’s Broadway Love Story ‘Mack & Mabel’, showing at Southwark Playhouse Vault
Presented by arrangement with Samuel French Ltd.
Starring: Norman Bowman (Mack Sennett) and Laura Pitt-Pulford (Mabel Normand)
Showing until 25th August 2012
(Review by Fiona Lister)
Theatregoers are flocking to see the revival of Mack and Mabel at Southwark Playhouse Vault. Jerry Herman’s most cherished Broadway musical based on an idea by Brooklyn born film producer and screenwriter Leonard Spigelgass, is simply the most eloquent, beautiful production I’ve seen. The tempestuous, tragic 1920s romance between silent movie-maker Mack Sennett, “King of Comedy” and Mabel Normand, a Brooklyn deli delivery girl turned silent movie star, has been lovingly crafted by Director Thom Southerland (with book revisions by Francine Pascal). The result is a visually strong high impact production of the Hollywood love story set in Mack Sennett’s Keystone Movie Studios of Brooklyn and Hollywood (1910 and 1929). Operating within tight production budgets and rehearsed within four weeks, Southerland has re-created an already inventive work by using every imaginative trick and technique he can muster to make audiences feel they are watching a lavish Broadway show. Undoubtedly, many agree this is the most ingenious Off-West End staging and although there are a few sound issues (echoing) these are overshadowed by the unique creative concept.
Produced by Danielle Tarento, Mack & Mabel is a complex, creatively dynamic musical that has been re-imagined in the most unusual location away from the West End stage. The ghostly magic of the dark, dusty underground Vault situated beneath platform one of London Bridge railway station (access via Tooley Street) is certainly atmospheric and instantly conjures theatrical alchemy from the moment you walk in. Thom Southerland had the idea of staging Mack & Mabel in the Vault after realising what he could achieve with this musical during his production of Parade there last year. Jerry Herman allowed him to make revisions to the show with the help of Francine Pascal (Book Revisions) with the view of turning Mack and Mabel into one of the hottest musical theatre productions ever written. Overseen by Production Manager David Warwick, Set Designer Jason Denvir and Lighting Designer Howard Hudson have certainly pulled out all the stops to turn this charming musical into a theatrical experience, rather than it just being a beautifully staged production.
Mack & Mabel is a step away from Jerry Herman’s original 1974 Broadway production with Book by Michael Stewart (starring Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters). Despite the original show’s box office success in the pre-Broadway runs in San Diego, Los Angeles and St. Louis, the critics shared mixed feelings. The dark storyline of a young cocaine-snorting leading lady and a heartless, steely Hollywood director didn’t originally work. The production was said to lack chemistry and the showgirl dance sequences set to Philip J. Lang’s orchestrations wrestled against the main turbulent love story - in short, they didn’t think the book and balance of themes were quite right. Despite running on Broadway for only eight weeks, the production received eight Tony Award nominations and although the exquisite musical score was adored, sadly Mack & Mabel was not a commercial success. Nevertheless, this hasn’t dampened interest in production, particularly in the musical score. Despite Herman’s success with smash hits like Hello, Dolly!, Mack & Mabel remains Herman’s most beloved score and it’s not hard to see why. UK audiences were stunned in the 1980s when they watched ice-skating champions Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean skating to the Overture and winning Gold. Mack & Mabel is the only musical to twice win the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical in 2004 and 2010 for both Broadway runs. There have been several productions of the show running in London over the years, but none have been as triumphant as this production. Most notably, after a run at the Goodspeed Theatre in Connecticut, Francine Pascal’s revised version played at the Criterion Theatre in London in 2006.
The casting by Danielle Tarento is superb. Laura Pitt-Pulford dazzles in the role of the temperamental ex deli waitress Mabel Normand who is transformed into a silent movie star by the hard-hearted film director Mack Sennett (Norman Bowman). The chemistry between both characters is striking, but the romance is never overplayed or drawn-out with sentimentality. It’s much more Brechtian than that. The very nature of the story and dynamics veils the extent of their true passion for each other until the end of the story. Mack lives for his work and love affairs will always come second to that, leaving Mabel infuriated. However, as the story builds it becomes incredibly absorbing and dramatic. Laura Pitt-Pulford gives a heart-rending performance as a woman who’s ripped apart from Mack when out of desperation she chooses to work for another director, makes bad choices and ends up dependent on sniffing rows of cocaine. Cold, uncaring Mack can’t express his feelings, leaving her heartbroken, torn away from him and alone to walk an ill-fated path strewn with misery. The story is extremely powerful and you will be left guessing right up until the end whether Mack will do anything about the situation. The audience was in tears. Laura Pitt-Pulford perfectly captures the spirit of Mabel and you will believe in her plight. “Wherever He Ain’t” is the most incredible song in the show and one that marks a turning point in the story.
Norman Bowman is blessed with bad boy gangster looks – you could imagine him the role of an Italian Mafia boss. Bowman is sensational as the dark, brooding, complex film director Mack Sennett, who in living for his art fails to see the impact this is having on Mabel, or even when he does see, doesn’t have the compassion or understanding to act on his emotions. There’s something robotic about the easily irritated, hot-headed Sennett, and it’s this continuous veiled emotion that leaves the audience infuriated with the equally stubborn movie queen. The unusual pairing of such an unlikely fiery duo as Mack and Mabel is what makes this complex romance so fascinating. Without one sacrificing something for the other, their romance becomes an emotional mess. “I Won’t Send Roses” sung by Mack is the most lyrical insight into his views on love and romance - he’s just way to selfish to bother.
Stuart Matthew Price captivates everyone in the supporting role of writer Frank Capra – both the men and women in the audience found him beguiling. Matthew Price was certainly the talk of the town in the bar afterwards with several admirers declaring big love for him. The blond sophisticated star has a powerful enchanting stage presence, natural charm and charisma married with the most mesmerising singing voice. Jessica Martin in the role of Lottie Ames is similarly captivating. Whether she’s narrating parts of the story or dancing in the electrifying tap dance routines (brilliantly choreographed by Lee Proud with Assistant Choreographer Anthony Whiteman) Lottie Ames plays a key role in linking the characters and their stories together. Steven Serlin also shines in the role of Mr Kessell, a shady Hollywood Producer who turns heartbroken Mabel’s success into her eventual hopeless demise.
The main chorus and swing are terrific – there’s a wonderfully choreographed dance routine with the Keystone Cops which had everyone laughing. The entire production spills over with sequin-clad dancers, Hollywood glamour and pizzazz. Costumes are by Set Designer Jason Denvir together with Costume Supervisor Chrissy Maddison. The chorus kicks in particularly in the second half and pulls off each complex routine with remarkable panache. Richard J. Hunt is hilarious in the role of Fatty Arbuckle together with the swing – Jody Ellen Robinson (Ella); Anthony Wise (Eddie); Peter Kenworthy (William Desmond Taylor); Jessica Buckby (Iris); Ryan Gover (Charlie); Paul Hutton (Freddie); Natalie Kent (Norma); Jonathan Norman (Wally) and Nikki Schofield (Phyllis).
The musical score is memorable and powerful, particularly notable in the opening Overture. Due to acoustic issues in the Southwark Playhouse Vault (echoes) a separate room was built to house the 11 piece full orchestra, with a sound desk situated in the main auditorium. Musical Director Michael Bradley together with Musical Supervisor Iain Vince-Gatt, Sound Designer Andrew Johnson and Associate MD/Keys Mark Aspinall, have worked tirelessly to make sure the cast is not drowned out by the orchestra, which would have happened if they’d been seated in the main echoing Vault. The downside of this was that the lengthy Overture, however beautiful, played to an empty stage when we’d have loved to have seen the orchestral magic out in front. Old silent movie footage would be another perfect way to break up the tableau and provide some visual interest.
I was fortunate to sit next to John and Brenda Flynn, a charming couple who have invested in this production. Earlier this year John fell seriously ill with a heart condition and was told that his chances of survival were fifty-fifty. When he fell deeply unconscious after his operation, doting wife Brenda decided to download a selection of show tunes onto her iPod and started playing them to her husband who was lying in his hospital bed in a state of near coma. John didn’t respond and nothing could wake him until the Mack & Mabel Overture was played. John had never heard the Overture before, but his feet started tapping and he began moving his hands. John and Brenda are eternally thankful to Jerry Herman's musical and it was this gratitude that sparked them into supporting the London revival of Mack & Mabel. Two months after his ordeal, it was a lovely albeit emotional experience to chink champagne glasses with John and celebrate the music that saved his life.
I wanted to award this production with 4.5 stars but hell that would be miserly. The staging and work that’s gone into Mack & Mabel deserves 5 stars and the cast had just four weeks of rehearsal time. Yes, it would have been lovely to see the orchestra out in front, particularly during the opening Overture (the most stunning overture I’ve ever heard). There are problems with the acoustics, but that aside, this is a complex book and musical score. The cast and creative team deserve five stars based on their hard work, talent, inventiveness and the creation of such visually strong work in a challenging, imaginative location.
Thom Sutherland has completely embraced the concept of turning this 1974 Broadway musical into a London smash hit. Mack & Mabel is certainly a magical production that everyone will be talking about in years to come. It’s also a credit to Southwark Playhouse who champion high quality, inventive work. Theatregoers and the press were united in raving about Mack & Mabel at the after show party. Truly magnificent work and I’ll be going again.
Showing until 25th August 2012
Show Starts: 7.30pm (8pm during Olympics) Matinee Starts 3pm
Running Time: 165 minutes with an interval
Price £10 | £16.50 | £22.50