New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

Connecticut Theater

"Mack & Mabel"
Goodspeed Musicals, East Haddam

If we are to trust audiences, "Mack & Mabel," now at Goodspeed Musicals, is a smash hit. The mostly-elderly audience at the matinee we attended gave it a roar of approval as the show came to a happy ending.

But the truth is that "Mack & Mabel" never lives up to its promise. This tale of the early days in Hollywood, when Mack Sennett made his wacky two-reelers, could have been a powerful depiction of that time. But it never does justice to the dynamic personalities of that era-the brash, self-centered Mack Sennett, his luscious star Mabel Normand, Fatty Arbuckle, Frank Capra, and a host of others. Nor does it bring the era vividly to life.

Yet "Mack & Mabel" certainly has its moments, and particularly in this production. Its two lead characters are most appealing. Christiane Noll is an irresistible Mabel Normand. She commands the stage from the moment she appears--a feisty deli delivery girl demanding her fifteen cents for the sandwich. Of course Mack Sennett sees her potential, and they are off and running-running, in fact, cross-country to California. And soon they are making history in Hollywood.

It takes more time to warm up to Scott Waara as Sennett, but ultimately he makes the role his own. Moreover, one believes in the strong sexual attraction between him and his star. Waara and Noll, incidentally, are also fine singers. Others in the cast help round out the production-particularly Robert Machray, literally, as Fatty Arbuckle. And Donna McKechnie, not the slim, fragile Cassie she once was in "A Chorus Line," still turns in a solid performance.

Under Arthur Allan Seidelman's direction the production moves ahead smoothly, but with occasional moments that drag. The pie-throwing scene, for instance, needs to move into higher gear, to achieve its maximum effect. And the company numbers, featuring Dan Siretta's choreography, are pleasant, but neither spectacular nor innovative. Only Marvin Laird's Kops Ballet (a taste of Mack Sennett's famous Keystone Kops) offers a witty routine.

But there are memorable musical moments, which indeed one expects from the show's gifted composer/lyricist Jerry Herman (whose works include the memorable "Hello, Dolly!" and "La Cage Aux Folles"). "Look What Happened to Mabel," "I Won't Send Roses," and "Time Heals Everything" are all songs which equal the best of Herman's tunes.

The show itself has had a stormy history. The original version, which appeared on Broadway in 1974, did not succeed. According to the program notes, it was an old-fashioned book musical (with a definite plot) in a time when the concept (that is, story-less) musical had become the vogue. Michael Stewart's book was later tampered with, to be more in line with the new musicals. But Francine Pascal's current revision brings back the original book, with its happily-ever-after feel-good ending. Whatever the shortcomings of the current "Mack and Mabel," it is now true to its original intent.

And whatever the shortcomings of the show in general, it offers a pleasant entertainment in a charmed setting. And there's always the bar at intermission and that wonderful porch overlooking the Connecticut River.

-- Irene Backalenick
Nov. 10, 2004

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