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Theater Review

Music of a Silent-Era Love Affair

In reworked, more upbeat 'Mack & Mabel,' the score is still more charming than the words.

November 10, 2000|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES THEATER WRITER

The romance between silent comedy director Mack Sennett and his frequent star Mabel Normand was a mess, but they often tried to rekindle the fire, according to the musical "Mack & Mabel."

Likewise, the problems of "Mack & Mabel" itself in 1974--a disappointing Broadway run of only 66 performances, a widely criticized libretto--have not prevented composer Jerry Herman from returning to the material.

A new version, mounted by Reprise! at the Freud Playhouse, is a reminder of the score's enduring charms and also an opportunity to see "Scarlet Pimpernel" star Douglas Sills and Jane Krakowski of "Ally McBeal" fame in something completely different. But the libretto is still a major drawback.

Francine Pascal, whose late brother Michael Stewart wrote the 1974 book, reportedly tried to make the script both more authentic and more romantic, with a happier ending.

As before, the show begins at the end. But the date of this scene is now 1929, not 1938, so no one has to acknowledge Normand's premature death in 1930.

The tone of Sennett's initial monologue is still bitter, though, and as he intermittently returns from flashbacks to his narration, it's clear that he has a lot of regrets. Yet Pascal simply drops the whole flashback framework at the end. After a final reconciliation between the two characters, you expect one more return to the Sennett narration, yet instead the curtain calls begin. The happy ending feels rigged.

Actually, by this point, the on-again, off-again twists in the central romance are a bit wearying. The problem, especially in the second act, is that the presentation of these twists lacks dramatic heft.

While the first act includes some notable fictions (Mack "discovers" Mabel when she's working for a deli; in fact, she started making movies without him), at least it develops in a plausibly dramatic way, thanks in large part to the song "I Won't Send Roses," Mack's declaration of independence.

The later problems are indicated, however, by the use of Herman's "Wherever He Ain't," Mabel's far more vigorous declaration of independence, too early in the show--as the third song from the end of the first act. In dramatic terms, this number is the high point of Mabel's rebellion. Much of the rest of the show feels vaguely anticlimactic.

After intermission, most of Mabel's key decisions--to run from or return to Mack--occur offstage, not in musical numbers that can match "Wherever He Ain't." These decisions, usually described instead of shown, feel a bit arbitrary. Mabel's wistfully ironic "Time Heals Everything" resonates but hardly propels the story.

The big ensemble numbers in the second act are even less essential. "When Mabel Comes in the Room" is an attempt to re-create the sycophantic tributes of the title songs of Herman's earlier "Hello, Dolly!" and "Mame," but it isn't as good as its predecessors and simply feels excessive. "Tap Your Troubles Away" is primarily an excuse for a tap line, though it's briefly interrupted by the sounds of offstage gunshots--as Mabel's other lover, director William Desmond Taylor, is murdered.

Sills certainly looks and sounds different from the original's Robert Preston. Sills' aristocratically handsome features, so right for "The Scarlet Pimpernel," here make him look like Clark Gable. You wonder why Sennett's the director, not the matinee idol himself, especially when he melodramatically spits out some of his phrases. Still, he spits them out in a street-side Brooklyn accent, far from fop territory. And his singing voice soars up into Irish tenor territory, unlike Preston's gruff growl--but perhaps just as valid, considering Sennett's Irish roots.

Krakowski has all the requisite cutes and spunk as Mabel, although she remains blond, while Normand usually was seen with darker tresses. Krakowski's singing voice lacks a distinctive timbre, but it's strong enough.

Donna McKechnie has the poorly developed role of Sennett's previous female star, who hardly evinces any jealousy of Mabel and, as compensation, leads the big tap number. It isn't the best fit for someone of McKechnie's experience. Kudos for Robert Machray's Fatty Arbuckle and Lane Davies as the oily Taylor.

Peter Matz's 18-piece orchestra performs with aplomb. There isn't room to simulate the more elaborate silent movie comedy effects--which may be just as well, judging from accounts of the first production. But at least we get one well-executed pie-throwing scene. Arthur Allan Seidelman directed with professional assurance.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

* "Mack & Mabel," UCLA, Freud Playhouse, Westwood. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Nov. 19. $50. (310) 825-2101. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes.

Douglas Sills: Mack Sennett

Jane Krakowski: Mabel Normand

Donna McKechnie: Lottie

Brad Kane/Chad Borden: Frank

Cindy Benson: Ella

Robert Machray: Fatty Arbuckle

Lenny Wolpe: Kessel

Gus Corrado: Bauman

Lane Davies: William Desmond Taylor

Music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. Book by Michael Stewart, revised by Francine Pascal. Directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman. Music direction by Peter Matz. Choreographed by Dan Siretta. Set by Gary Wissmann. Costumes by Scott A. Lane. Lighting by Tom Ruzika. Sound by Philip J. Allen. Stage manager Jill Johnson Gold.

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