When Jerry Herman’s Mack and Mabel (book by Michael Stewart, music and lyrics by Herman) opened in 1974, at the Kennedy Centre prior to its Broadway transfer, Richard Coe of the Washington Post opined that it “landed with all the zip of a wet, very dead flounder”. That first Broadway production, despite starring Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters, ran for 66 performances and was generally considered a flop.

Now in previews at the Chichester Festival Theatre is Jonathan Church’s revival of Mack and Mabel (with book revisions by Francine Pascal), with musical direction from Robert Scott, choreography from Stephen Mear, and set and costumes from Robert Jones. Scott, Mear and Jones play a blinder; Church, not so much.

This musical is somewhat of a rarity in the Herman repertoire: it is a musical tragedy rather than a musical comedy and it centres on one man, rather than a woman or a couple.

The man is Mack Sennett, a real life silent movie legend, and the musical deals with a real story: the rise and rise, and then fall, of Mack Sennett. Key to this is the involvement of two women in his life, Lottie Ames, an “old hoofer” who is part of his movie making ‘family’, and Mabel Normand, a young Delicatessen worker who stumbles onto a Sennett soundstage and changes both their lives.

Told in flashback, with a defeated Sennett, bankrupt and about to lose his studio, reminiscing about his time on the soundstages where he plied his comic craft, the narrative is uncompromising. Sennett is not a particularly warm character, but he is driven with a passion for silent movies which make people laugh. His focus is on that to the exclusion of pretty much everything and everyone else, and anyone else’s needs. He is not driven by money, but by the desire to bring laughter. He is a bully and a liar, but even those whom he betrays keep loyal to him, despite his failings (which include not paying his workers).

Sennett tells the audience early on that it was years after he had fallen in love with Mabel that he realised when it happened. This is not a traditional love story by any means. Sennett makes clear he will never be romantically inclined towards Mabel, that she will always be a far away second to his work. She accepts that, at first, but understandably finds his aloofness and intransigence difficult. She leaves, becomes involved with a slimy rival producer, and is consumed by an addiction to alcohol and drugs.

When Sennett is outraged by the way the newspapers are reporting about Mabel, his old friend, Frank (Kapra) must make him face the truth: Mabel was driven to cocaine by Sennett; using was the only way she could cope with his punishing recording schedule. Mack goes to rescue her, to marry her, but he is too late.

Juxtaposed against this sad tale is some of Herman’s most vital and invigorating music. The score is rich in melody and there are many bright, upbeat numbers. The directorial trick with Mack and Mabel is to steer a course between the ebullient score and the tragic narrative which makes dramatic sense of the work as a whole. Key to this is the casting and playing of the role of Mack.

Church’s choice for Mack is Michael Ball. When this decision was first announced, I confess to bewilderment. Michael Ball is an accomplished and gifted performer, had been the best Edna Turnblad I had ever seen in Hairspray, but Mack seemed an impossible dream. On the strength of this evening’s performance, my fears were completely unfounded.

Ball is an exceptional, utterly convincing Mack. He completely gets under the skin of the character, finding precisely the right level to pitch every moment of anger, driven determination, and offhand callousness. The passion for making comedy films that can see people of any race and creed laugh in any place on the planet is the backbone of Ball’s characterisation. He is entirely unsentimental in his delivery and never seeks the approval of the audience. This is very clever; the audience sees the respect and loyalty Mack engenders, and grows to love him despite his occasionally Blofeld-like behaviour. Equally, his moments of honest reflection about his failings are splendidly done.

Musically, Ball is exceptional. He uses his big, bright voice deftly, producing clear, strong notes, ringing phrases of great colour, and perfectly supported passages of soft and delicate singing. His work in “Movies Were Movies”, “I Won’t Send Roses”, “I Wanna Make The World Laugh” and, especially, “I Promise You A Happy Ending” is remarkable, and sees him tested vocally in a number of different ways. Delicate or booming, every word is clear, and every note true, much of it thrilling to hear live. He is no slouch in the dance department either, surprisingly nimble and energetic when it comes to movement.

It is a terrific, uncompromising, and outstanding performance, one which will set a benchmark for a very long time. Ball could play this part with distinction on Broadway. It is worth seeing this production simply to see Ball strut his stuff. Pure gold.

The other true stars of this production are Robert Scott’s meticulous and suitably brassy provision of orchestral support, his rigorous attention to the detail of the harmonies and melodies and the way the ensemble attack the singing, Stephen Mear’s inventive and ceaselessly engaging dance routines, and Robert Jones’s simple, yet very effective, stage design and spectacular, often gloriously glamorous or outrageously twee, costumes.

The ensemble singing is terrific throughout, with diction, accuracy, and energy the hallmarks. Hardly a consonant is lost by the ensemble, and there is a richness and solid assurance to the big numbers which makes them jewels for the ears. Some of the tempi is slightly too slow but no doubt that will improve as the show beds in. Rightly, Mear’s dancing never takes second place to the music; as is his want, he has calibrated the choreography to complement and enhance the singing rather than detract from it.

There are so many excellent routines, but the outstanding ones centre around “Big Time”, “Hundreds of Girls”, “When Mabel Comes In The Room” and “Tap Your Troubles Away”. Each is effervescent, slick and very engaging; in several cases, Mear builds layers into the routines, starting with one line and then adding more and more. It’s a perfect technique for this show.

“Hit ‘Em On The Head”, a musical homage to the famous Keystone Cops, is spot on in evoking the sense of those silent movie heroes; at times it is difficult to believe you are not watching a colour version of one of their slapstick masterpieces. There are other excellent moments too – the gentle background dancing at the fancy place where Mabel first meets the rival producer, WD Taylor, provides a seductive and decadent background to the encounter; the moment when a bathing suited dancer (Ashley Andrews – just terrific) body surfs across three large beach balloons and then rights himself and walks off without flinching is a Wow! moment to the power of ten. Mear takes every opportunity to use movement to enhance proceedings and unerringly succeeds.

Jones’ costumes are gorgeous and period perfect. Ball is given flattering and quite beautiful three piece suits to wear. Mabel is blessed with gorgeous outfits and there is just immaculate attention to detail in the dozens and dozens of costumes the ensemble wear, from bathing suits to back tie, with police uniforms and busboy livery along the way.

Given that the piece is fundamentally connected with movie-making, it is inspired to make such good use of background projections to establish mood and setting. The sparse pieces of set are all clever and work well, creating efficient notions of railway carriages, boutique glamour spots, and international cruise liners, as well as the studio empire that is Sennett’s. Everything about the look and feel of the sets and costumes works, and Howard Harrison’s lighting is wonderfully in tune with mood – cold for Sennett, warm for Mabel.

Ball has some tremendous support. Gunner Cauthery is splendid as Frank, the office assistant forced into a writing career by Mack, who carries a torch for Mabel but accepts her indifference to him in a romantic sense. Cauthery is natural and believable as Frank giving a finely judged performance which is only enhanced by his excellent singing. As Fatty, the silent movie comic star, Jack Edwards is terrific and genuinely funny. Mark Insoe oozes charm from every pore as WB Taylor managing that perfect blend of smarmy faux sophistication and wily predator with consummate ease.

Alex Giannini and Timothy Quinlan are perfect as the money men, Baumann and Kessell, who keep Sennett as honest as possible about profit and loss. Michelle Francis (Iris), Andrew Waldron (Andy, the Grip) and Joseph Prouse (Eddie) all make their mark.

Where Church stumbles, and seriously, is in the casting and playing of the two key women in the show: Lottie and Mabel.

Lottie has two distinct personas – her on-screen actress and the real world Lottie. The first is a caricature; the second needs to be different, real, loyal and warm. It is, after all, Lottie who finally convinces Mack that he needs Mabel and whose defection to a rival studio wounds him most deeply. For those moments to work properly, the off-screen Lottie needs heart and natural charm.

This is true, too, in relation to the delivery of the music. “Big Time” works best if Lottie leads with true excitement, genuine warmth and infectious hope. Sure, it needs to be brassy and belted, but it also needs exhilarating excitement: cold, cut glass precision is simply not enough. “Tap Your Troubles Away”, the stunning eleven o’clock number here, is a chance for Lottie, released from the tyranny of Sennett’s directorial vice, to blossom and bloom, to let her stage persona be consumed by her real world joy and heart. Just as Mabel leaving Mack destroys her, so Lottie leaving Mack transforms and releases her.

Church lets these moments go for nothing. Anna-Jane Casey is a tremendous dancer and enjoys showing off her agile pins as Lottie. She is terrific in the tap routine in her big number. But her Lottie is a stock type: cynical, feisty, aloof, almost condescending, dryer than a Bond martini and coldly contained. There is no warmth radiating from this Lottie. Which is a great pity. As far as she goes, Casey does a nice job, although her diction needs attention in some of the singing. But it is not a performance that engages with the character in a wholehearted way, and her two big numbers do not peak as they should. Lottie needs heart, lots and lots of heart – and Church ought to have ensured that Casey knew that and delivered the goods.

There is an entire song devoted to the extraordinary effect Mabel creates when she walks into a room. One would have thought that that would have been a sufficient indication of what sort of a performer is required for the role: a natural star. Someone who glows with a special intensity, someone you cannot but notice, someone who is mesmerising. Alas, as personable and sweet as she may be, Rebecca LaChance is not such a person. She is fundamentally miscast.

LaChance struggles with the demands of the score also. “Time Heals Everything” is not the showstopper it could be, and throughout the evening, LaChance’s voice seems lost in the demands of the singing. She does not have a strong enough belt and her head voice is often wide and flat. It’s not that she can’t sing – she can – but she is not at ease with this score and its virtuoso demands. It is difficult to understand why it was necessary to cast an American given LaChance’s unsuitability for the role.

It’s not fatal. LaChance is sweet and sincere and Ball goes out of his way to encourage and support her performance. Of her three numbers, “Look What Happened To Mabel” is the most effective. The audience loved her.

But by having Lottie and Mabel not as they might be, Church permits the narrative to remain unfulfilled. It is through the two main female characters that the role of Mack is properly defined. Lottie establishes that good people can love and support him, but that escaping him can be life-changing; Mabel shows Mack the possibilities of a different path, one he realises he could/should take, but too late. That triangle of complicated, real people lies at the centre of Mack and Mabel. And without that triangle precisely right, the whole show lacks an element of vivacity, a frisson, the spark that makes it dazzle.

But Coe’s image of a “wet, very dead flounder” is inapt for this production. If there is a fishy analogy here, it is of a majestic salmon fighting against the tide and breaking to freedom.

For the evening belongs to Ball. His charisma, stamina and overwhelming skill leaves a permanent impression, ably supported by the work of Mear, Jones and Scott, Herman’s magnificent score and lyrics, and a very hardworking and gifted ensemble. It’s another Chichester treat.

Look what happened to M. Ball!

Four stars

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Mack and Mabel - Review
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Stephen Collins
With years of experience on both sides of the curtain, Stephen Collins has worked as an actor, singer, director, producer and casting consultant, indulging his passion for live theatre. Occasionally a media lawyer, who has worked in-house for the likes of Channel 4 and The Sunday Times, he can usually be found in an audience. In 2014 and 2015, he was lead critic for Britishtheatre.com. He thinks the West End and London is the centre of the theatrical universe (sorry Broadway!), but fears it's not possible to see absolutely everything that’s on there. He doesn’t stop trying though. Cocktails help when it all gets too much.