Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Kudos to the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) for providing opportunities to see large scale productions of musicals which are rarely mounted. Mack and Mabel isn't a perfect show, despite its wonderful score, but CCM's satisfying production is about as good as one can ever hope to see.
Mack and Mabel focuses on Mack Sennett, the silent film director who created the Keystone Cops and was responsible for much of early Hollywood's comedic slapstick antics and the bathing beauties phenomenon. The story follows Mack's discovery of Mabel Normand, who becomes a comedy star in Sennett's films, and the pair's tumultuous relationship. The musical opened on Broadway in 1974, but closed in less than two months.
Much of the criticism of the show was placed on its unwelcoming book by Michael Stewart, and the criticism is warranted. The story is quite dark, with a very unlikeable lead character in Mack, and contains an unhappy ending. Additionally, the second act drags quite a bit.
Where it does succeed is in the songs. Jerry Herman is having quite the year in New York City, with his Hello, Dolly! back on Broadway starring Bette Midler and smaller scale productions of his shows Milk and Honey and Dear World playing Off-Broadway. His score for Mack and Mabel showcases bouncy, buoyant melodies and smart lyrics throughout. From more serious numbers such as "I Won't Send Roses" (Mack's warning to Mabel that he won't be much of a romantic if they begin a relationship) to Mabel's two big solos, "Wherever He Ain't" and "Time Heals Everything", as well as group songs like the spirited "Tap Your Troubles Away," the score is a winner.
Despite the show's storytelling shortcomings, CCM provides a full scale, all-out production. As Mack, Alex Stone provides the requisite intensity, bravado, and full-throttle vocals, and the show is in good hands with Mr. Stone as its foundation. Emily Celeste Fink is delightful as Mabel. She conveys so much with her facial expressions, sings with a great mix of power and delicate care, and displays the right balance of spunk and endearment. In support, Kyra Christopher dances up a storm as Lottie, and displays the expected voice of a chorine from the period. Karl Amundson sings well and is impressive as head writer Frank, and Casey Wenger-Schulman (Ella) and Nick Berninger (Fatty Arbuckle) provide winning takes as well. The large ensemble does a first-rate job executing the many dances and bringing committed performances to their characters.
Director Aubrey Berg supplies crisp blocking and an apt tone, and does his best in accentuating the positives of the piece while limiting its liabilities. He also effectively uses a great deal of archival film footage of the Sennett films and Mabel, supplied for CCM by Pauline Humbert. The choreography by Patti James features fun, period dances for several large production numbers, highlighted by the joyous group tap dance during Tap Your Troubles Away." Several dances aptly incorporate props such as beach balls and parasols in the style of Susan Stroman. Musical director Evan Roider exuberantly leads a superb sounding 25-piece orchestra.
The impressive set design by Mark Halpin uses a massive rendering of a studio soundstage as its foundation, with other flies and pieces coming in. Particularly outstanding is a scene at a restaurant (the draped cloth is simple but beautiful) and one at a dock of boarding ship. The costumes by Reba Senske are visually stunning and vibrant in color, though the comparison of the bathing suits to the historical footage (which is shown immediately after the scene) shows they are more theatrical than period accurate. The lighting by Mick Saiki is professionally rendered and well-suited to the show.
Due to its book issues, Mack and Mabel won't ever achieve the acclaim and following of other Jerry Herman musicals such as Hello, Dolly!, La Cage aux Folles, or even Mame. But, CCM's production showcases the top-notch talents within the program (both onstage and behind the scenes), along with the show's wonderful songs.
Mack and Mabel continues at CCM through March 5, 2017. For more information, visit www.ccm.uc.edu.