Quiet on the set! Lights, camera, sticks, annnnd action!
Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman’s Mack and Mabel has set up shop at the Festival Theatre. Those with a taste for glittering flappers, bathing beauties, Keystone Cops and pie fights will enjoy the Canadian première of a musical that gives the inside scoop (with song and dance) as to how silent movies were made.
This nostalgic show, from the writing team that gave us Carol Channing’s best-loved role, and Louis Armstrong’s biggest hit, Hello, Dolly! (1964, running an incredible 2,844 performances on Broadway), isn’t as strong as its fabled predecessor (opened in 1974, starring Bernadette Peters and Robert Preston—closed 65 performances later) but has much to recommend it.
It’s the tale of Canadian-born Mack Sennett, who spent his life trying to make audiences laugh and his backers rich. Some say he invented screen comedy. Noted film writer, David Thomson, puts it his way: “… he filmed disorder or order reappraised—collisions, accidents, chaos, the mechanization of the chase, the pixilation of life. Run his movies forward and backwards and you may see how little difference there is.”
For the Shaw, Benedict Campbell makes an ideal Mack. His infectious demeanour and obvious joy in physical humour craft a characterization that carries the show from first frame to last. His booming baritone (in no need at all of the dreaded microphones) whether tender (“I Won’t Send Roses”) or loudly irreverent (“Hit ‘Em on the Head”—with no apologies to Monty Python’s “being-hit-on-the-head lessons” from the infamous “Argument” sketch) only needs an extra ounce of diaphragm at the top (especially through the troublesome consonants in lyrics like “girl”) to move from great to excellent.
Mack tells his rise to fame through flashback, beginning with his discovery of Mabel Arnold who stumbles into show biz by delivering a sandwich to the set in Stewart’s storyline (she was actually a model) and, quite literally, falls for both Mack and the allure of the movies. Glynis Ranney delivers a heroine who is empathetic (particularly as she slides into booze, pills and lines that aren’t in any script), engaging (the seduction scene in a train car over veal and peppers is a gem) and forceful as needed (sung from a steamer ramp, “Time Heals Everything” makes its point convincingly despite a plodding feel from Paul Sportelli’s intrepid pit band that needs more lift, less punch).
The supporting cast is equally gifted: Gabrielle Jones proves she can belt with the best of them as Lottie Ames and leads an enthusiastic, if more thundering herd than an MGM dance troupe (“Tap Your Trouble Away”). Fatty Arbuckle has an able proponent in Neil Barclay whose pants-splitting antics were, well, seamless. The producer team of Kessel & Bauman (Jay Turvey and William Vickers, respectively) played effortlessly off each other and kept their scenes humming along with zest. Kudos to Patty Jamieson as Ella: as the onstage pianist, she acquitted herself admirably—is there no end to the extra talents lurking about the company?
But let’s be clear. As good as the onstage gang proved to be, this show (literally—you have to be there), revolves around the considerable skill sets of director Molly Smith and her marvelously creative production team. Designer William Schmuck raised his own considerable standards by finding just the right mix of grey/black&white for the film within the play production numbers. And he balances those with a riot of colour, fabric and glitter, giving the ensemble numbers more hues than the NBC peacock.
Going entirely with that visual flow is Jock Munro’s stellar lighting plot. From hot white when the camera rolls, to the pinpoint follow spots and back illumination of things naughty and nice, everything comes up roses. The only questionable moment brings the sepia Keystone footage to the big screen, while above, live actors act out the long-ago captions. Dirty work at the crossroads in deed.
Baayork Lee’s (with ongoing dance supervision by Parker Esse) choreography challenges the entire ensemble to heights and moves some may never have imagined. What suffers in unanimity of limbs and landings is totally trumped by energy. The Key-Cop cancan is a hoot—the troupe-as-train when leaving New York gives the show an early push. Puzzling is the Act I series of vignettes whose numerous repetitions drag rather than build. Keep an eye out for Shaw newcomer Kawa Ada, whose Chaplin portrayal, which raises cane and delights as much as his windmill arms move later on with an effortlessness that threatens to make him airborne.
All aboard for Mack and Mabel—a trip to the silent past with more than enough to entertain those present. JWR