In 1974, Jerry Herman, Michael Stewart and Gower Champion (the team behind the iconic “Hello Dolly”) reunited for another musical–this one centering on the bitter-sweet romance of Silent Screen pioneers, Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand; the result was the musical “Mack & Mabel”. On Monday evening, May 20th, “Musical Theatre West” in Long Beach California continued its ground-breaking 60th Season by transporting those visiting “The Carpenter Center For The Performing Arts” on the campus of CSULB, back to a magical time when “Movies Were Movies” by staging this rarely seen musical gem for an extraordinary one-night only concert event.
Featuring some of the finest examples of musical virtuosity and variety ever undertaken by Jerry Herman–the composer and lyricist of such other classics as “Mame“, “Dear World” and “La Cage Aux Folles“, he himself once declared that “Mack & Mabel” ranks as his own personal favorite of all his scores. Furthermore, “The New York Times” once proclaimed “the songs remain among the most felicitous in Mr. Herman’s canon.” For those with even a passing familiarity with any of its anthems, comments like these should come as no surprise; the selections here make for a magnificent musical mixed-drink that invites listeners thirsty for the kind of good, old-fashioned (and infinitely hummable) show-tunes Broadway once overflowed with, to ’belly up to the bar” and get their fill!
Set against the vibrant backdrop of the early days of cinema and told in flash-back, after the opening scenes in Brooklyn, New York, the action unfolds in Hollywood during the Roaring Twenties. Famed silent–film Director Mack Sennett serves as narrator as well as being an active participant in all the goings-on as he recalls his creation of the “Keystone Kops“, the “Bathing Beauties“, and his often turbulent relationship with Mabel A. Normand (“The A. is Agnes–after ‘St. Agnes,” she tells us) a “waitress from Flatbush” whom he discovered and helped to become one of the silent era’s very first bona-fide “Movie Stars“.
On top of their tempestuous romance, the psychology of this self-admitted overbearing, intensely driven “autocrat” is profiled in a series of episodes–some funny, some frustrating, many deeply poignant. This is a man whose primary goal is “to make the world laugh”, but who wistfully confesses to Mabel, “with words romantic, I‘m at a loss…I won‘t send roses–and roses suit you so.” Word is that MTW had wanted to do the show for sometime, and there had even been some consideration given toward mounting a full-blown production as part of one of its regular offerings; yet now seemed to be an ideal opportunity to present it as a single benefit performance with a stellar cast headed by Davis Gaines as Mack Sennett. Already a familiar face to local audiences, Gaines last took the stage at The Carpenter Center as “King Arthur” in Monty Python’s madcap farce “Spamalot”, after triumphantly playing the title role in last year’s “Man Of La Mancha” for which he garnered an “Ovation Award“. The Role of Sennett is a terrific fit for Gaines, whose rich, resonant Baritone served his songs exceedingly well. Whether kicking things off with the boisterous “Movies Were Movies” or shifting the action into high gear with the ‘ginger and snap’ of “Hundreds Of Girls” (in which Mack conjures up the idea for his famous “Bathing Beauties”) ; furnishing a harmonic springboard for the antic slapstick of the “Keystone Kop” sequence with “Hit ’Em On The Head”, or strumming the audience’s heartstrings, as in “I Won’t Send Roses” and the closing “I Promise You A Happy Ending”, he commanded the stage every minute he was on (–and always sounded amazing while doing it!)
Joining him was the vivacious Vicki Lewis as Mabel Normand. Wowing audiences with a gold-medal Jerry Herman melody is definitely not a new experience for this Award-Winning powerhouse of a performer–she tackled the role of ‘Dolly Levi’ in the Maltz-Jupiter Theatre’s production of “Hello Dolly” just last year. Lewis possesses a quality similar to a young Barbara Streisand, and despite her waif-like appearance, she is likewise blessed with an astronomical-sized voice which she put to good use Monday evening. While giving the more jovial numbers such as “Look What’s Happened To Mabel” an added dose of fun and likeability, it was in the more emotional ones–”Where Ever He Ain’t” and ”Time Heals Everything” that this uber-talented lady really outshone the spotlights!
Other standouts included Darcie Roberts as Lottie–an old “Vaudeville Hoofer” who, we learn, goes on to star in the ’new’ “Vitaphone Varieties”. In addition to leading the cast in the exuberant “This Time It’s The Big Time”, later, she practically stopped the show with the dynamic “Tap Your Troubles Away”–complete with its built-in encore–accompanied by an entire line of dancers bucking, winging, and time-stepping in energetic unison! David Burnham (most recently seen in the Broadway cast of “Wicked”) also provided impressive support as “Frankie“ the wide-eyed, fresh-faced writer based on three-time Academy Award winning Director, Frank Capra. Burnham’s expressive vocals were especially in evidence introducing the initial verses of the second act rouser, “When Mabel Comes In The Room” before bringing the entire company in for a stirring rendition of this, what many consider to be among Composer Herman’s very best signature “Staircase” numbers. In addition, Chuck Saculla appropriately ’oozed’ superficial charm and ‘seethed’ insincerity as “William Desmond Taylor”, and Robert Hoyt made for a spirited and engaging “Fatty” Arbuckle. So too, Jeni Baker was suitably sultry in her brief turn as “Mae Busch”–a pint-sized siren Mabel takes under her wing (to her eventual regret.) Those ‘running this show” were an award-winning creative team headed by the Executive Vice President of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society and Emmy Award-winning director, Larry Carpenter, with Musical Direction by Emmy and Grammy Award-winner John McDaniel. The set-ups were kept simple; after all, the cast had only 25 hours of rehearsal–in fact, understanding this makes what was accomplished that night all the more remarkable. The full orchestra (which incorporated a Xylophone for those more ’whimsical’ passages) was on stage behind the performers, while suspended over them was a large screen on to which was projected black and white ‘title cards” like those used in silent movies.
Through this device, the time and place of the various scenes were easily conveyed. Produced by MTW’s Executive Director/Producer Paul Garman, the evening served as a benefit for the organization’s Education and Outreach programs, which include special student matinees, in-school assemblies to teach the importance of theatre arts, and their ongoing “From Page To Stage” library touring show which demonstrates to thousands of the area’s children every year, how literature ranging from works by Mark Twain and Charles Dickens to weekly comic strips can be adapted for the musical theatre. Those interested in learning more about these programs or donating towards them, are encouraged to check out: http://musical.org/MusicalTheatreWest/donate.html . Donations can also be made via phone through “Musical Theatre West’s” box office by calling 562-856-1999 x4.
Special Thanks To “Musical Theater West” Producer Paul Garman And To Rick Bernstein, Gloria Nelson, Along With The Cast & Crew Of “MTW’s” Benefit Concert Production Of “Mack And Mabel” For Making This Story Possible