★★½☆☆ Aurally and visually a blast, a stilted book leaves Mack & Mabel a second-rate musical.

Hayes Theatre, Sydney
November 22, 2016

Since its premiere on Broadway in the ‘70s, Jerry Herman’s Mack & Mabel has had something of a troubled history. Trailing a string of mixed reviews, a swathe of Tony nominations that never amounted to actual awards and a series of revisions over the years, the show has never really taken off in a big way. It has however, attracted something of a cult following, due in no small part to Jerry Herman’s solid score. Hayes Theatre Co’s production is the first time the show has been staged professionally in Sydney.

Spanning the years 1911 to 1938, the musical tells the story of Hollywood director Mack Sennett and actress Mabel Normand, who starred in many of his comic ‘two-reeler’ silent films. Sennett tells the story in flashbacks, Scott Irwin setting the scene with a desiccated rendition of Movies Were Movies as the older Sennett reminiscing about his silent films. Michael Stewart’s book is the show’s real weakness. The plot unfolds in stilted scenes with a tendency to tell rather than show, the dialogue orienting the audience through clunky lines like “It’s been five years, Mack, it’s 1923!”

Scott Irwin as Mack Sennett, photo © Lightbox Photography

The music, however, allows for some entertaining performances. Angelique Cassimatis is a fire-cracker as Mabel, brimming with energy and sporting a hard-edged Brooklyn accent as she deftly navigates her character’s arc from Flat Bush delicatessen waitress to glamorous but troubled Hollywood star. She brings a lively panache to Look What Happened to Mabel, but it’s in the darker songs, Wherever He Ain’t – sung bitterly after she leaves Sennett to pursue a more serious career – and the more poignant Time Heals Everything, sung with throaty pathos, that she really shines, eliciting sympathy in a show low on sympathetic characters.

Irwin is a suitably aloof and condescending Mack Sennett – his ‘love’ song I Won’t Send Roses draws up the terms of his relationship with Mabel – but there is little in the way of chemistry between the two. Sennett’s uncompromising obsession with slapstick comedy, his overbearing direction style and his raging tantrums don’t exactly endear him and Mabel’s sudden infatuation strains credulity. Irwin can certainly sing but the comic timing of his dialogue wasn’t quite on the money on opening night.

Angelique Cassimatis and Scott Irwin, photo © Lightbox Photography

Aurally and visually, the show is a blast. What Mack & Mabel lacks in believable plot it makes up for in impromptu spectacles, love songs to the silent film era. Angela White’s costumes are beautiful, particularly the bright splashes of colour that bring the Bathing Beauties scene to life. Cameron Mitchell’s choreography makes elegant use of the small stage space – moving mirrors multiply the Beauties to create a sprawling beach scene. Pie-in-the-face slapstick and a Keystone Cops dance sequence belies the darker undercurrents. Tap Your Troubles Away, led by Deone Zanotto as Lottie Ames, bubbles with joyful energy – despite its improbable insertion as a kind of antidote to Mabel’s descent into drug use and her abuse at the hands of her new lover, director William Desmond Taylor.

Deone Zanotto leads Tap Your Troubles Away, photo © Lightbox Photography

Lauren Peters’ sets are an affectionate look back at America in the first half of the 20th century. Black and white film projected onto a curtain speeds the steam train across the country and animates the car chase while the film studios are nostalgically cluttered without being claustrophobic. Gavan Swift’s lighting design is slick and effective. The band, led by Bev Kennedy from the keyboard is tight, driving the show’s energy forward.

The Keystone Cops, photo © Lightbox Photography

The ending – which different productions have tried to revise with varying success – is far from upbeat and there are no real winners. But even the sense of tragedy feels perfunctory, right to the end the plot moves forward in fits and starts without any clear development.

While director Trevor Ashley has put together this production with a great deal of care – the sets and costumes are beautiful, the music is entertaining and the actors move effectively in the small theatre space – it doesn’t quite transcend the limitations of the source material. In the end what we’re left with is a pretty good production of a second-rate musical. 

Mack & Mabel is at the Hayes Theatre until December 18