Los Angeles Theater Preview: MACK & MABEL (Musical Theatre West)

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by Tony Frankel on May 15, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles


Of the 32 shows I attended in Chicago recently, the most charming experiences were with four musical revivals, three from Broadway’s heyday — the 1930s through the Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema feature on Musical Theatre West's "Mack & Mabel."1960s — and one from somewhere near the onset of its slow and painful decline — the 1970s to the present (Sondheim doesn’t enter into this conversation, and I will drop a house on the first person who says, “Yeah, but what about Wicked and The Book of Mormon?”). Two of these musicals were storefront productions: Pal Joey (1940) and The Pajama Game (1954); one was a staged concert reading: I Can Get it for You Wholesale (1962); and another was in a mid-size house: Barnum (1980). You can imagine that production values went all over the map, and each one downsized the cast. But get this: none of them are perfectly constructed, wholly successful musicals. To varying degrees, they contain problematic librettos (known as “books” in Tony-voter parlance), and some have a score that works in fits and starts. None of that matters, because each show contains songs that can stand on their own. Remember songs? Those things with clever lyrics and great melodies — versus today’s musicals which have songs that are overpoweringly characterized by pop rock stylings and a crazy high belt.

This is why I’m chomping at the bit to see Musical Theatre West’s one-night only benefit concert version of Jerry Herman’s seldom performed Mack & Mabel on Monday, May 20 at 8pm. It has enough terrific songs – all which will be performed by a powerhouse cast – that an awkward book will look like an afterthought. In this Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema feature on Musical Theatre West's "Mack & Mabel."1974 musical, famed silent film director Mack Sennett reflects on his artistic legacy — his Bathing Beauties, the Keystone Cops, and of course, Mabel Normand, the waitress from Flatbush that he turned into a movie star.  Set against the backdrop of the early days of cinema, this rarely seen work depicts the bittersweet love story between two of film’s early icons. Tony-nominated Larry Carpenter will direct, and a full live orchestra on stage at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center will be conducted by John McDaniel (Music Director on Broadway’s Annie Get Your Gun and Catch Me If You Can, but you’ll no doubt remember him as the musical sidekick on The Rosie O’Donnell Show).

Two of the songs, “I Won’t Send Roses” and “Time Heals Everything” have been well-covered, and “Tap Your Troubles Away” is a confectionary delight. And while “When Mabel Comes in the Room” is almost shamelessly identical in structure to Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema feature on Musical Theatre West's "Mack & Mabel."“Hello, Dolly,” it certainly isn’t offensive.  “Movies Were Movies” is a clever pastiche of silent film accompaniment, and “Look What Happened to Mabel” is as jaunty as a flapper (you can see both songs here on YouTube).

The workaholic movie director Mack Sennett will be played by Davis Gaines, who may have performed the title role in The Phantom of the Opera more than 2,000 times, but I was blown away by his splendid portrayal as Don Quixote in MTW’s Man of La Mancha. Gaines also proved himself to have splendid comic chops in Spamalot and 1776, both also with MTW.

Vicki Lewis will play Mabel Normand, the deli delivery girl who becomes a movie star and with whom Mack reluctantly becomes romantically involved. Lewis has done a slew of terrific work with Reprise Theatre Company here in LA, and starred in Chicago on Broadway, but she is probably best known for her role as Beth the Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema feature on Musical Theatre West's "Mack & Mabel."secretary on TV’s NewsRadio. Also on tap is the ridiculously handsome and golden-throated David Burnham, whom locals may remember from his stunning performance as Fabrizio in The Light in the Piazza when it rolled through the Ahmanson on its national tour. Last year, he starred in the new Off-Broadway show The Best Is Yet to Come: The Music of Cy Coleman. Burnham will play Frank, an actor and writer who later becomes a director. Originally, the role was known as Frank Wyman, but subsequent amendments of the libretto have changed some character names to their real life counterparts from the era. Hence, Frank Wyman is now Frank Capra.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema feature on Musical Theatre West's "Mack & Mabel."The original Mack & Mabel was plagued with problems, most notably Michael Stewart’s book. The idea came from Leonard Spigelglass and producer Ed Lester in 1971. Lester brought in Herman, who gave up on the collaboration with Spigelglass after a year. Herman turned to Stewart, who had adapted Wilder’s The Matchmaker (1955) into Hello, Dolly! (1964). Any musical theater instructor will tell you DO NOT write a book around existing songs, but that is exactly what Stewart had to do. Plus, the David Merrick production, directed by Gower Champion and starring Robert Preston, tried desperately to stage it like Hello, Dolly! but never had the proper central story to work with. It received scathing reviews and flopped after 65 performances. Whatever the ultimate fate of Mack & Mabel, it finally established Bernadette Peters as a star.

Tony Frankel's Stage and Cinema feature on Musical Theatre West's "Mack & Mabel."Because the songs are so infectious (and the era so ripe for a musical), revisions to the book have occurred a few times; Michael Stewart was working on the 1988 Paper Mill Playhouse update when he died. MTW’s rendition is based on a revised script by Stewart’s sister, Francine Pascal, written for a hugely successful 1995 London revival. I won’t give away the new ending, but it’s rather certain that the Fatty Arbuckle rape and murder scandal, removed from the libretto in 1988, will still be excised (don’t ask).

Mack & Mabel
Musical Theatre West
Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beach
one night only on Monday, May 20 at 8pm
benefitting Musical Theatre West’s Education and Outreach programs
for tickets, call (562) 856-1999 x4 or visit http://www.musical.org

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