Mack and Mabel is having its first outing in Sydney more than four decades after its Broadway opening. With a score by Jerry Herman (the composer behind Hello, Dolly!, La Cage aux Folles and Mame) and a book by Michael Stewart (bookwriter for Bye, Bye Birdie, Hello, Dolly! and co-writer of 42nd Street), it tells the story of Canadian-born director and actor, Mack Sennett (Scott Irwin), a one-time king of silent filmmaking in the slapstick comedy genre.
The story begins in 1938, and the events that transpire across the two-and-a-half hours that follow represent a series of flashbacks by the filmmaker of his glory days, with a particular focus on his relationship with actress Mabel Normand (Angelique Cassimatis). It should be noted that the real Normand first encountered Sennett after she’d already appeared in a short film and, prior to that time, she’d worked as a model. On stage, Herman’s dramatised meeting of the pair sees Normand as a delicatessen worker delivering a sandwich to actress Lottie Ames (a composite of a number of silent film stars, played here by Deone Zanotto), while she’s starring in one of Sennett’s films. Mabel’s raucous response when Lottie is unable to pay – and the chain of events it sets off -convinces Mack she has the potential to act in his films.
Normand accepts Sennett’s offer and ultimately becomes a successful star of the screen. Sennett later moves his film company to California and, on their train journey from east to west coast, it becomes clear Normand has become infatuated by Sennett. He makes it clear he’s not the committing type, and the depiction of Normand’s acceptance of that fact effectively establishes the relationship between the two for years to come.
Normand grows tired of slapstick and eyes a transition into dramas, but Sennett won’t hear of it. This opens the door for Normand to be enticed away by another film director, William Desmond Taylor (Shaun Rennie), who affords her that chance. She leaves Sennett and the studio and while a reunion eventually comes, it’s short-lived. Normand moves from one exploiting man to another.
Mack and Mabel is historically regarded within musical theatre circles as a flawed work. Its first half is generally well paced and sets up the story of Sennett and Normand appropriately, but the second act is more troublesome. It tends to linger too long on too little story but then skim over those aspects of greater significance and human interest. There are opportunities created in the arc for some big stage numbers, but important moments in Normand’s own story cry out for more thoughtful exposition (her cocaine addiction, the cloud of suspicion as to whether she was involved in Taylor’s murder, and her premature death at the age of 37).
Much to his credit, director Trevor Ashley has delivered a production of Mack and Mabel that is about as slick and as entertaining as one can achieve with the source material. Working with a cast of 13, he and choreographer Cameron Mitchell have maximised their use of the small stage space and created something that feels remarkably large in scale for the cosy Hayes auditorium. Mitchell’s numbers are dynamic and era appropriate, with both great jazz and tap highlights, and all dance content is executed sharply and energetically by both ensemble and principal performers.
As the egotistical workaholic director Sennett, Irwin is strong. His considerable stage presence succeeds in making the filmmaker both appealing and enormously frustrating; his characterisation paints a clear picture of a man so driven by his desire to make films that his treatment of Normand and her career are heavily compromised.
Zanotto showcases her substantial stage experience in her portrayal of the talented Ames. Her movements seem effortless and, vocally, she demonstrates an impressive and consistent strength. And Adam Di Martino, who plays the eventually successful screenwriter Frank Wyman, lends integrity to his character and makes the most of a book that gives Wyman less air time than he perhaps deserves.
But make no mistake, this production of Mack and Mabel is all about Cassimatis. Those who’ve had the chance to see her on the Hayes stage this year as Crystal in Little Shop of Horrors and Mimi in Rent would already be aware her star is on the rise. However, it’s her performance here as Normand that should see her launched into the highest echelons of professional musical theatre in Australia. She is dynamite from the get-go – magnetic, vivacious, and simply a joy to watch. On the acting front, her attention to detail is remarkable, particularly her use of carefully-considered facial expressions adding beautiful subtlety and believability. Despite her mistreatment at the hands of the Svengali-like Sennett, Cassimatis’ Mabel never completely loses agency. Vocally, she is gutsy, and her gorgeous, rich tone is the ideal match for Herman’s score. And when it comes to her dancing, there’s a naturalism despite the demands of Mitchell’s choreography.
Musically, the score has some great moments (particularly during the first act) and its wonderfully performed here under the direction of one of the country’s leading musical directors, Bev Kennedy.
Angela White, who has done beautiful work on costuming for several productions at the Hayes, unsurprisingly succeeds here in bringing to life this early 20th century film crowd with accuracy. Some stunning pieces designed for Cassimatis are a highlight. Lauren Peters, also a regular creative at the Hayes, has designed a set that’s simple but evokes time and place effectively. And, finally, Gavan Swift deserves commendation for an excellent lighting design, which incorporates more moving lights than we’re used to seeing in this small theatre space.
Mack and Mabel is far from a perfect musical at its core, but Ashley and his team have created a production for audiences that make attendance a highly enjoyable experience. It’s a chance to see something so rarely performed (and never before in the harbour city) and, capped off by the truly outstanding performance of Cassimatis, is a night at the Hayes that should satisfy most musical theatre fans.
MACK AND MABEL – SEASON DETAILS
Venue: Hayes Theatre Co, 19 Greenknowe Ave, Potts Point
Season: Until 18 December 2016
Times: Tue-Fri 7:30pm*, Sat 2pm & 8pm, Sun 2pm & 7pm
*No performance Tue Nov 29
*Extra matinee Wed Nov 30 at 1pm
Price: $70 Tue – Thu, $80 Fri – Sun