At its best, Jerry Herman’s score for Mack and Mabel must rank alongside the greatest ever written for a Broadway musical and Jonathan Church’s revival reminds us that it never strays far from that best. The overtures to both acts, played here superbly by Robert Scott’s orchestra, send shivers down the spine, before Herman’s exquisite lyrics are heard or the sparkling dance routines are seen. So, the enigma of M & M is why it has never received all the fine things that it deserves either on Broadway or in the West End, where it may never have been seen at all were it not for Torvill & Dean’s unforgettable routine to its music. The theory that musical theatre audiences demand happy endings is not borne out by the success of many other shows and Michael Stewart’s book is certainly not sub-standard, or at least not in this version, revised by Francine Pascal. Maybe the story, a love affair based on real-life characters and set against the backdrop of the birth of Hollywood in the 1920s silent movie era, is trying to pack in too much. Maybe the relationship between the central characters is just too complex to convey successfully. For me, having now seen four different productions, a clue comes from the fact that my favourite remains the miniature version directed by Thom Southerland at the old Southwark Playhouse in 2012. The intimacy of the small venue may have diminished the spectacle of the big routines, but it brought the human story to the fore. Here, Chichester’s large thrust stage is perfect for the big song and dance numbers, but, when one or two characters are alone on it, they seem lost. In the end, it probably comes down to striking the right balance between the intimate and the spectacular and, maybe, no production, including this one, has yet quite managed to achieve that. Michael Ball, quite a bit older than Mack Sennett was in the 1920s captures the essence of the hard-nosed film director who is obsessed with making people laugh and is totally inept when it comes to wooing his leading lady, Mabel Normand; but then Herman makes it easy for him by summing up the character in a single song: “my pace is frantic my temper’s cross, with words romantic I’m at a loss…”. Ball may well have sung I Won’t Send Roses a thousand times over the years, but here he acts it and means it. Rebecca LaChance is beguiling as the naive small town waitress Mabel, but she is less assured when her character develops into the self-important, damaged movie star. It is somewhat disappointing, given the stage space available, that Church does not make more of the slapstick, particularly the Keystone Cops, and some of Stephen Mear’s choreography in the first half is just ordinary. However, Hundreds of Girls is buoyant and When Mabel Comes in the Room is staged with real panache. Near the end, in the middle of the show’s unfolding tragedy, comes Tap Your Troubles Away to do exactly what Hollywood movies have always done – cheer us up. This is the third time that I have seen Anna-Jane Casey take the lead on this glorious dance routine and, if she chooses to shape her career around it, is anyone going to complain? One serious gripe (and a surprise bearing in mind the number of years in which Church has worked at Chichester) is that almost all of the production is played directly to the front, apparently ignoring the fact that the audience here is seated in a crescent-shaped auditorium. Yes, the production will be going on tour to proscenium arch theatres, but, if that is the excuse, it is a pretty weak one. Otherwise, this is a polished and highly entertaining show that will do nothing to damage Chichester’s growing reputation for generating world-class productions of musicals. One day, someone will come up with the perfect Mack and Mabel, but, while we wait for it, at least we can wallow again in all those magnificent songs.
Performance date: 5 August 2015