The beloved and little seen Jerry Herman musical "Mack & Mabel" currently is brought to life on the Circle Theatre stage with energy, charm, and skill. The front lobby and long hallway leading back to the larger of two performances spaces at this Forest Park theatre are filled with inspired lobby displays chockablock with dramaturgically relevant images and information about the people and events that populate and inform this biographic dramatic story of the love story between Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand, and the equally powerful love story between Mack Sennett and the art of movie making. His life, as illustrated by this fine and rarely revived 1974 musical was a struggle between these completing love stories. The movies, the happy ending as only possible in the movies, win out.
The raw intentionally slapdash set designed by Bob Knuth is flexible and wonderfully appropriate (trunks and dust and big personalities and kids just putting on a show), evoking as the production proceeds train cars, ocean liner departure platforms, movie sets, and cocktail parties. Through the overture, rear projected images suggest nickelodeons, backstage areas, and the 'born in a trunk" can-do spirit and make-do efforts of the early years of motion pictures. Video assembled and shot in early silent picture style by Kevin Bellie and Bob Knuth evokes the era and film style in image and movement, syncopated with live action figures delightfully choreographed by Kevin Bellie, and we are off. The stage, and we, are fully prepared for our story that begins in 1910 Brooklyn and takes us through the early years of Hollywood silent movie film making.
Our host for the performance is Mack Sennett (Jon Steinhagen), the man of several loves: comedy, filmmaking, and the Brooklyn waitress we soon "meet cute", Miss Mabel Normand (Cat Davis). Through the camera lens we meet her and Mack shows us that indeed "the camera loved her", combining from the initial moment of stage time the two loves of his life, Mabel and the movies.
Mack originally inspires Mabel to participate in a chase scene when she arrives on the set to deliver sandwiched from the deli where she works, announcing that "we're shooting the scene with you or without you", and this does the trick. She moves from waitress to actress that easily, happily singing "Look What's Happened to Mabel". When the company moves west to the new movie making community soon thereafter, romance blossoms, despite Mack's contention that he may not be true (he's a self professed womanizer) and is not a romantic at heart ("I Won't Send Roses"), and Mabel pursues with her eyes open. Mack promises to "fill the screen" and he does, first with bathing beauties (staged in a manner reminiscent of Sweeney's small time vaudeville "Eight Beautiful Girls Eight" in "Funny Girl" where Fanny Brice gets her start) and later with madcap slapstick in police uniforms that he calls his famous "Keystone Kops". Mack sings "I Wanna Make the World Laugh", and we want to laugh with him. Frank Capra (Eric Lundahl), yes, eventually that Frank Capra, is a screenwriter on this young unit, providing support for Mabel and carrying a torch for her through the years. Mabel eventually is unhappy sharing the screen with swirling masses of comedic entertainment, and becomes attentive to a man who appears to love only her, William Desmond Taylor (Andy Baldeschwiler). The melancholy strains of the "I Won't Send Roses" gorgeously rises and closes the first act.
The second act involves a return, a departure, a few deaths described, and two personalities who don't change: Mack remains the enthusiastic movie maker seeking a laugh in celluloid, and Mabel continues to seek her fortune, with a finite set of skills and growing drug and alcohol habit. Mable returns for a time to Mack's studio, setting up a scene that feels a bit like Norma Desmond's return to her old studio in the musical version of "Sunset Boulevard, greeting the grips and the extras. Norma is reliving a fantasy of her past greatness and sense of family she once felt at the film. In "Mack & Mabel" we hear from Mack's sidekick Lottie (the fabulous Brigitte Ditmars) providing a stunning performance of "When Mabel Comes in the Room." Mabel really has returned to work, and it is in her power to make the return last.
Mabel's back, but so are the Keystone Kops, and thus the tension continues .. who and what and which actions will fill the screen? Mabel doesn't last with the studio, she break up irrevocably with Mack, and potentially show stopping numbers represent where the two characters move next with this pain. Mabel with the classic ballad "Time Heals Everything" ("Some Tuesday Thursday April August Autumn Winter next year some year ... time heals everything but loving you") and Lottie on Mack's behalf, sings and dances the spirit of his studio tearing up up the stage with her colleagues in "Tap Your Troubles Away". This characters is the Thelma Ritter / Eva Arden / Helen Broderick good looking best buddy who keeps the story rolling, and she makes the most of it. I love these characters.
The entire production shines. Much is made from little, the choreography fills the stage, and the music fills our hearts. And yet, the production falls short on one essential dimension. For one key character, one key song, perhaps THE key song (and for this listener, the big "eleven o'clock number" that in part compelled the visit to see this rarely produced musical on its feet) was not quite delivered. This had to do with the age and maturity of the co-star Cat Davis, taking on the massive role of Mabel Normand. Ms. Davis captures the youthful gaucherie and ballsiness of Mabel just out of Brooklyn, and her anger at being pushed out of the spotlight for massive production numbers and slapstick comedy. However, the lovely and young Ms. Davis is not quite up to projecting the pain and resolution, the surviver through addiction, the exhaustion and anger, of the torch song "Time Heals Everything", and much of the character and resonance of the second act and Mabel Normand's character in this play pivots from the emotions and dimensions captured in that song. This disappointment for me was profound; I suspect that Ms. Davis will be ready for this number in a few years time.
In the end, this was a stunning spare and effectively detailed production, dramaturgically impressive and artistically inspired. There were moments of greatness in particular performances and a score that deserves to be better known than it is. Productions like this will help to spread the word. Lovely job.