Examining the inevitable self-destruction that comes with a life in the movies, Mack & Mabel, currently playing at the Hayes Theatre, offers a glimpse into the heartbreakingly pernicious yet romantic world of Old Hollywood. It’s a musical that craves praise and affection and finally, under the direction of Trevor Ashley, it seems to earn it.
With music by Broadway legend Jerry Herman (Mame, Hello, Dolly! and La Cage aux Folles), it is undoubtedly the score that keeps people interested in this musical. Bringing down the class songs,including “I Won’t Send Roses” and “Time Heals Everything” is the famously “bummer of a book,” as termed by John Clum in his 2001 book Something for the Boys: Musical Theatre and Gay Culture. Whilst Act I delivers good old Broadway joy and humour, Act II takes a darker turn and it is here that the book begins to disappoint as it attempts to cover too much, in too short a time, leaving many aspects of Mabel’s life unexamined.
Based on the true lives of movie maker Mack Sennett (Scott Irwin) and the silent movie star Mabel Normand (Angelique Cassimattis), the musical, written by Michael Stewart, tells Mack’s story. As a consequence, Mabel’s story is sparse and it does a disservice to her legacy; it omits much of her contribution to the movie industry – she was a key factor of the development of cinematic comedy.
Also missing from the musical is Normand’s success apart from Sennett – Normand developed skits, directed movies and eventually even opened her own film studio. Her death too is misrepresented – though it is true that Normand led an over-indulgent and unhealthy lifestyle involving drugs, alcohol and numerous scandals both in her personal and professional life, her true demise was the result of tuberculosis. For a performer who starred in over 230 movies, Mack & Mabel shows little of her personal success or fierce independence, and instead presents her as love-sick and one who is easily influenced.
Despite these source problems, Ashley’s take on Mack & Mabel has to be about as good as this show gets. The choreography is creative, the direction is seamless, and the performances brilliant.
Cheeky and clever, Cameron Mitchell’s choreographic work on this show is arguably his best work to date in an already wonderfully extensive career as both a choreographer and performer (West Side Story, Spamalot, Heathers the Musical). The rather small black box theatre feels as grand as any Broadway stage as the cast dance, defying any challenges that the limited space may present – while still maintaining the integrity of the intimate venue. Representing his true diversity as a choreographer, the numbers feature everything from a glitzy tap extravaganza to a playful jazz ‘beach babes’ number.
Ashley cleverly employs Mitchell’s choreography as a means by which to skillfully and seemingly effortlessly transition from scene to scene, emphasizing his impressive skill as a director. Though the show is definitely skewed to show the story through Mack’s eyes, Ashley shapes Mabel with an air of mystique, that is perhaps the most honest representation of the true Mabel Normand associated with the musical and the most obvious nod to what seems like Ashley’s extensive research into the history of not only the characters, but the lives behind them too.
Accordingly, Ashley’s care and consideration in putting this production together is evident. Every element of the show is right, from the fantastic yet minimalist set (Lauren Peters), appropriate and exciting costumes, designed by Angela White and the exact and clever casting by Lisa Campbell.
Angelique Cassimatis is an exceptional leader on stage; she’s a firecracker of a performer. Musical theatre fans might recognise her from previous 2016 productions including Little Shop of Horrors (which started life at the Hayes before touring the country) and the return season of Rent, also at the Hayes; she is proving to be a versatile and talented actor with a stunning voice.
Also a standout from the cast is Deone Zanotto as Lottie Ames. Offering another big voice and superb talent, her Act II number “Tap Your Troubles Away” is a highlight; it provides the light-hearted relief the audience needs in the second act, and it creatively continues to move the story forward, mainly by distracting audiences away from Mabel’s simultaneous demise.
Irwin delivers a great performance as Mack, particularly when singing the well-known classics he is tasked with, his work doesn’t compare to the powerhouse women that he shares the stage with, particularly Cassimatis.
On Broadway, Mack & Mabel closed after only sixty-six performances. However, in the intimacy and comfort of the Hayes, it may have just found the perfect home. Though the script will likely forever prevent this show from great success and affection from audiences, Ashley and all involved should be very proud of offering the best possible version of this show.