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A CurtainUp BerkshiresReview

Mack and Mabel by Elyse Sommer

I Won't send roses
Or hold the door
I won't remember
Which dress you wore
My heart is too much in control. . .

--silent movie tycoon Mack Sennett

So who needs roses . . . That didn't come from him
--Mabel Norman who, courtesy of the original librettist's sister, Francine Pascal, does get her bouquet in the old-fashioned movie fadeout that rings down the curtain on Barrington Stage's Mack and Mabel.

How nice, after a Broadway season that failed to produce one musical with a hummable tune, to be writing a review of a show with several of its tunes sending my fingers bouncing across the keyboard. And what more perfect place for Jerry Herman's twenty-five-year old Mack and Mabel to bounce back to life than at the adventurous five-year old Barrington Stage Company.

The seemingly no-can-win musical has found the perfect setting for its revised book with the yes-we-can theater company that has made its mark on the Berkshire cultural map despite competition from larger, more established neighbors. Francine Pascal's revisions of her brother's book have made the show into the love story it was meant to be, with the upbeat ending it was meant to have but originally didn't. And Julianne Boyd has cast it with an appealing leading man and lady, Jeff McCarthy and Kelli Rabke. The original Mack, Robert Preston, was twice the age of the original Mabel, Bernadette Peters. McCarthy and Rabke are young enough for the romantic sparks to fly convincingly.

Ms. Boyd has already proved her ability to bring back older musicals with a big show sensibility but without losing the charm and intimacy of a regional production. Her award-winning production of Kander and Ebb's Cabaret was as unique as the more widely known revival still playing on Broadway. Now, she's given Mack and Mabel a staging with the same big but intimate feel. No mega-stars but plenty of star quality.

The revised book depicts a romance with lots of tension with the driven and egotistical film maker and the love-needy waitress-turned model-turned silent film star each changing enough to make you say "yea, they really did love each other. It's also a historically interesting story. The early by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach to movie making epitomized by the output of Mack Sennett's film studio is particularly timely in the light of the frontier spirit currently pervading the Internet. (One of Los Angeles' many theater companies should catch this production and put it on as musical history lesson about the city's major industry).

The show's biggest asset is, of course, its score by Jerry Herman, the music man behind such super hits as Mame, Hello Dolly and La Cage Aux Folles. The "Movies Were Movies" opening number perfectly captures the rhythm of those old silent movies. "Hundreds of Girls" and "Hit 'em on the Head" bring Sennett's famous bathing beauties and Keystone Kops vividly to life -- the latter retrieved from the junk heap to which it was relegated during tryouts of the original. The catchy "Wherever He Ain't" and the love story's above quoted theme song "I Won't Send Roses" and it's "So Who Needs Roses" reprise will stay with you long after you leave the Consolati Arts Center.

Jeff McCarthy, though sharing star billing with Kelli Rabke, is very much the show's driving force. He acts and moves with grace and his singing voice is strong enough to make the body mike he wears one of the show's excesses. Rabke is a charming, vulnerable and plucky Mabel and delivers her songs with great zest. While she doesn't really look like Bernadette Peters, her hairdo and demeanor during the first act gets a bit in the way of her establishing her own persona. One member of the audience who knew nothing about the show's history commented that McCarthy reminded him of a young Robert Preston. So, while he too may have been chosen for qualities similar to the original star's, the connection isn't quite as obvious as it is in Ms. Rabke's case.

High praise is also due to the featured players and the ensemble. Kathryn Kendall is a standout as Lottie and her big production number with the Company, "Tap Your Troubles Away," fully deserved the show stopping applause. Ric Stoneback also shines as Fatty Arbuckle as does Will Erat as Frank, the scriptwriter in a studio that worked too fast to need a script. (Frank is none other than movie great Frank Capra). You have to look sharp to realize that the night watchman who lets Sennett into his bankrupt studio is the same Peter Kapetan who later metamorphoses into a slick "new" style film producer. It is the watchman's dialogue with Mac that introduces the series of flashbacks that propel the action -- starting with when he first met Mabel, moving on to their unlikely marriage and separation and her disastrous relationship with Kapetan's manipulative William Desmond Taylor.

Hope Clarke's choreography is somewhat spotty, which is also true of the ensemble's dancing. Jeffrey Fender's costumes for the big bathing beauties number, "Hundreds of Girls" are fun enough to forgive the otherwise serviceable to underwhelming outfits. Kenneth Foy's set smartly keeps the accouterments of the movie studio at each side of the stage, with plenty of room for the dance numbers and various props to be wheeled out A stage rear curtain is occasionally drawn to reveal a skyscape appropriately lit to reflect the mood of the moment by Jason Kantrowitz.

In a world where "what can you do?" is a favorite cliche for doing nothing to fix things that don't work right the first time, the re-making of Mack and Mabel is an inspiring exception. Jerry Herman who, along with Francine Pascal, was on hand at the official opening to share the applause looked understandably ecstatic over this loving re-staging of his beloved "flop." Maybe if the stage had been on the Great White Way, there would have been enough bouquets for him and Pascal and Director Boyd and the entire cast -- but, those passed around bouquets say it all for the joyful spirit that will be apparent to all who time travel back with this company to the days when "movies were movies."

There's no CD of this cast available (or likely to be). However, you can hear the songs from the last production in England as well as the original with Bernadette Peters, Robert Preston and Lisa Kirk

In his memoir ShowTune (our review of the book) Jerry Herman renders a lengthy account of the show's birth pangs and the the revisions used in the current Barrington Stage production.

Our review of Barrington Stage's last musical Cabaret

MACK AND MABEL Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman
Book by Michael Stewart
Book revisions by Francine Pascal
Directed by Julianne Boyd,
Starring: Jeff McCarthy as Mack Sennett and Kelli Rabke as Mabel Normand. Also: Kathryn Kendall (Lottie), Will Erat (Frank), Robert Anderson (Kessel), Peter Kapetan (W. Desmond Taylor and night watchman), Ric Stoneback (Fatty Arbuckle), Natalie Sliko (Ella and Mae Bush), Michal J. Farina (Baumann).
Ensemble: Haley Benick, Kate Besterman, Adrienne Gibbons, Adam Grey, Katie Kerwin, Joe Killilea, Beth Manning, Matthew McCulloch, Michele Tibbitts
Sets: Ken Foy
Costumes: Jeffrey Fender
Lights: Jason Kantrowitz
Sound: Jim van Bergen.
Musical director: Darren R. Cohen
Running Time 1 hour and 45 minutes with one intermission
Barrington Stage at Consolati Performing Arts Center in Sheffield (413/ 528-8888)
6/22/99-7/18/99; opening 6/26/99 Reviewed byElyse Sommer

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