This eagerly awaited amateur production of Mack & Mabel by Carlton Operatic Society is probably going to end up as one of the best non-professional musical theatre shows of the year in Nottingham. Who doesn’t like a big numbers musical comedy and heart-breaking love story based on real people from history? The show tunes and songs are not only familiar in their own musical theatre right but also through their past usage by popular Nottinghamshire skating stars Torvill and Dean.
Featuring an outstanding score by Jerry Herman, Mack & Mabel is widely loved for its classic Broadway hits including I Won’t Send Roses, Tap Your Troubles Away, Movies Were Movies, I Wanna Make The World Laugh and Time Heals Everything. In the world of musical theatre where a show can have three or four really memorable tunes if you are lucky, this one is overflowing with them!
Mack & Mabel is based on the real-life romance between Hollywood legends Mack Sennett (Graham Ward) and Mabel Normand (Sarah Millington). It tells the story of a group of pioneering film-makers who brought to the silent screen, two reel comical tales full of tantalising antics. They included fun and danger with silently screeching girls tied to train tracks, handsome heroes and dastardly villains in capes, glamorous and saucy bathing beauties and the hilariously chaotic world of the wacky Keystone Kops.
Directed by Sarah Walker-Smith and complete with dazzling choreography by Rachael Rees, this high gloss production of Mack & Mabel is a truly poignant love story and gripping tribute to the pioneers of silent film. The late Michael Stewart’s original book of the 1974 show has been revised by best selling author Francine Pascal. The live orchestra is under the strong direction of Christopher Rees and the lush orchestrations are superbly rendered. The overture alone sets the mood and excites the senses.
The afore-mentioned anticipation is grandly rewarded by this new production’s vibrant musical numbers some of which evoke the jazz styles of the 1920s. The ensemble songs are exactly what you would expect from a Carlton Operatic Society production. This occurs especially during the second half number When Mabel Comes in The Room signalling Mabel Normand’s return to the world of the Sennett Studios. Patrick McCrystal as Frank Capra leads When Mabel Comes In The Room with his warm mellifluous tones. The closing first half number Hundreds of Girls is colourfully kaleidoscopic in its choreographic execution. Overall the committed Carlton Operatic Society ensemble give their everything to making this a very special night at the theatre.
Graham Ward, as Sennett is on top form vocally and dramatically. He shows off his musical theatre pedigree with emotional numbers like I Promise You A Happy Ending and I Won’t Send Roses plus more energetic comical pieces like I Wanna Make The World Laugh. Portraying such a monomaniacal and unromantic character as Max Sennett, Ward still takes us into his character’s obsessive heart and draws out our sympathies as he realises his missed chances to win the love of Mabel. This actor-audience connection is particularly true when Sennett’s silent film career starts to falter due to the introduction of the ‘talkies’. His chemistry with Mabel Normand (Sarah Millington) is palpable and the two of them bring out all of the complexities of their on-off relationship through their fine acting and Jerry Herman’s songs and score.
Millington lights up the stage in the title role of Mabel the hash slinger (a server in a cheap US restaurant who is snappy with the customers) suddenly turned silent movie star. She has a very expressive and powerful voice conveying all the complex emotions of her flawed character. Millington handles the lighter Look What Happened To Mabel with ease and charm and her singing of Time Heals Everything is bewitching. There is a clear and moving transition between her bubbly vivacity as the ‘star’ on the film set and the vulnerable personality suffering from early stages of tuberculosis and hooked on drugs in real life.
The drug abuse aspects of the story are more alluded to than made a big deal of. Francine Pascal’s revised book concentrates more on Mabel Normand’s achievements in the world of cinema during her relatively short life rather than her weaknesses.
In reality Mabel Normand was a popular actress, screenwriter and collaborator in Max Sennett’s Keystone productions. She had her own studio and production company and appeared in a dozen films with Charlie Chaplin and even more with Fatty Arbuckle. Despite two major scandals in her life she continued to work successfully in films until tuberculosis and her recreational habits took their eventual toll. In the show her decline is shown during the final scenes but no real explanation is given of the cause/s of her death.
In a large cast Abby Wells stands out as Mack Sennett’s sidekick and skilled tap dancer Lottie Ames. Wells really gets to show off her tap dancing skills in the lively song and dance routine Tap Your Troubles Away. This number has a feel of the musical Chicago in the dramatic way that the murder of film impresario William Desmond Taylor (Ross Lowe) is handled. Lowe does louche very convincingly and his short performance is one of the acting highlights of the show.
A character that was invented for this show is Miss Jones played by Helen Tunnicliff. Her ditzy, disorganised and star struck character is brilliantly demonstrated by Tunnicliff who clearly possesses a talent or three for comedy.
Even though the show has a sad ending, the sound of most of the audience sniffing back the tears is a true sign of a strong emotional connection with the show and characters. What company could ask for more than that? Terrific stuff. The rose petal fall at the end is a beautiful touch and a fond way of remembering the beauty and talents of Mabel Normand.
Mack & Mabel runs at Nottingham Theatre Royal until Saturday 11 May 2019.
Production photo credit: Gavin Mawditt
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