Mack and Mabel is bursting with songs
Saturday, Jan 11, 2014 06:00 am
Any woman involved in a love triangle encounters a great deal of frustration. Competing with another person is tough. But when the third party is a lover’s obsessive dalliance with movies, the romance is a train wreck waiting to happen.
Making this premise work was one of the big challenges of Mack and Mabel, Jerry Herman’s (Hello Dolly) 1974 musical that tells a somewhat true, somewhat fictionalized story of the silent era movie director Mack Sennett.
The Canadian-born movie mogul, who lost a fortune and made another, created the legendary silent era Bathing Beauties and pie-throwing Keystone Cops.
His mistress Mabel Normand, a Brooklyn deli waitress turned comic diva with a gift for making people laugh, shared a tempestuous romantic liaison and film career with him.
She was both lover and muse. But as Michael Stewart’s book makes clear, although Sennett loved the ditzy Norman with a thundering passion, movies were so deeply embedded in his soul he could never fully separate cinematic fiction from real life.
The May-December romance was doomed right from the get-go. In her passion for Sennett, Normand committed the cardinal sin of many women in love. She catered to his whims hoping to change him. It didn’t work.
In addition, by trying to maintain Sennett’s gruelling pace of shooting 15 shorts in a month, she developed an addiction to drugs – an important aspect of Normand’s life that unfortunately is skirted over in the musical’s book.
Kate Ryan, artistic director of Plain Jane Theatre mounts this two-hour production as the debut of her concert series. There are no fancy sets or costumes to distract from the actors.
The only backdrop at the Varscona Theatre is a screen that plays snippets of black and white shorts from the silent film era. Accompanying the frisky visuals are the mood-tempering keyboard stylings of Shannon Hiebert.
Otherwise, the focus is strictly on the actors.
With veteran actor Jeff Haslam in the role of Mack and the younger Patricia Zentilli as Mabel, it is a production that is completely accessible to the public.
Haslam plays Mack, an autocrat addicted to laughter. He is alternately both vulnerable and belligerent. Sneering at his competitors, he says, “What do they know about making movies? Not a god damn thing.”
Ultimately his maniacal crusade to make movies at the cost of love reveals his desolation and self-imposed loneliness.
Zentilli’s wide-eyed Mabel is smart, sassy and seductive. Even as Mabel learns to stand up for herself, Zentilli’s youthfulness projects a fragility that slowly reveals the actress’ self-destructive life.
Herman wrote some truly wonderful pieces of music – tunes such as I Won’t Send Roses and Wherever He Ain’t.
The audience roared its approval with the three-man showstopper, Tap Your Troubles Away, led by three marvelously zesty hoofers – Amber Bissonnette, Jason Hardwick and Leah Paterson.
Although the production was mounted concert-style, Ryan never let the momentum drop by maintaining constant physical movement. One highlight occurs as Fred Zbryski (Fatty Arbuckle) leaps into a well-timed cartwheel in Make the World Laugh.
Mack and Mabel leaves lingering memories of a lovely score, some fine acting, a few good laughs and some bittersweet moments. And that isn’t too bad.