It has been said that Mack and Mabel is a fantastic score looking for a decent book. It’s certainly true that this is possibly Jerry Herman’s best set of songs (and we surely have Torvil and Dean to thank for making us aware of this); it’s also true that biographical musicals rarely work (Michael Stewart's Barnham is similarly flawed in my view); and the show was a major flop on Broadway losing its backers hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Can Chichester’s Michael Church give us a book and a production to match those glorious musical numbers? Unfortunately the answer is not quite. Church throws everything at it. The book has been 'revised' by Michael Stewart's sister, author Francine Pascal but I'm afraid the revisions are just to subtle for me to detect, and the book is substantially the same as the one in the last professional productions I saw - Michael Doyle's with actor/musicians and a surprisingly good David Soul as Mack. There is an attempt to give us an up-beat ending along the lines that Mabel will live on in her movies. But, come on! Who the hell has heard of Mabel Normand in this day and age? And that's the trouble with this book. We are stuck with a heroine who dies of TB at the end, which is kind of OK in an opera but just doesn't work in a musical; and Sennett, for all his bluster, was far from being the last word in movie production - unless you think that the Keystone Cops were the absolute zenith of cinema in the twentieth century.
We have movies projected everywhere. Some original, others shot by the cast and processed to look like early film stock.These by Jon Driscoll are highly effective and dovetail nicely into Robert Jones's clever design. As with many musicals that just slightly (or even badly) misfire, it is not the fault of the cast and creatives.
Michael Ball has a vocal branch of his fan club wherever he performs and Chichester does not disappoint. He was not in the best of voice on the evening that I went, but he still managed to charm his way into our affections despite the fact that Mack is not the most sympathetic character. Rebecca La Chance an unknown off-Broadway actress is a bold choice for Mabel, but she pulls it off with some panache - and it's good to hear an authentic Brooklyn accent in an English production for once. But the acting, dancing and singing honours in this production go to Anna-Jane Casey (Lottie) whose musical theatre cv is as long as a Tolstoy novel and includes just about every musical you've ever seen or heard about, as well as regular appearances with the John Wilson Orchestra at the Proms. She lights up the stage in every scene she's in and is worth the admission price alone.
The band of sixteen musicians under the direction of Robert Scott do full justice to Philip Lang's original orchestrations, slightly tweaked by Larry Blank.
This is a show that illustrates how important that third creative strand, the book, is. Many theatre-goers are un aware of the fact that the book is as important and crucial to a successful show as music and lyrics. Its what makes Carousel a great musical and Tonight's the Night an absolute stinker. Jerry Herman's songs are so fabulous that ultimately this is a hugely enjoyable evening's entertainment, and hats off to Michael Church for trying.
Certainly Herman learned his lesson. His next project was the deeply satisfying La Cage aux Folles. Surely Albin is a part that Michael Ball was born to play. Maybe next year?