Silence Isn’t Golden

By Ande Jacobson

South Bay Musical Theatre (SBMT) closes its current season with Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart’s Mack and Mabel which chronicles a fictionalized account of the real-life relationship between silent film director Mack Sennett, best known for his Keystone Kops, and his find, Mabel Normand.

Rarely done, Mack and Mabel debuted on Broadway in 1974, ten years after Herman and Stewart’s Hello Dolly. While its Broadway run was short (only 66 performances), it garnered eight Tony nominations, though curiously none for musical score, which was surprising given this is reputed to be one of Herman’s best.

The show starts as Sennett returns to his old Brooklyn studio after talkies have taken hold. Following the opening number when Sennett reminisces about When Movies Were Movies in the silent film era, the show continues in flashback. As depicted, Mack Sennett is rather conceited, unyielding, and never stops talking, which is odd considering his medium is “silent” film. Still, he’s sexy in a Bob Fosse kind of way, except that Sennett is making it all up as he goes. Mabel Normand is depicted as an innocent, at first anyway. Her naivety and comic flair attract Sennett, and so begins their working relationship stemming from a chance meeting when Normand delivers a sandwich to Sennett’s current star.

The original book follows the standard boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and then…well, you get the idea. Various endings have since been written, some happy, some tragic, and to detail that further would ruin the suspense.

Musically, Mack and Mabel clearly shows the Jerry Herman style, and parallels portions of his other works. The number When Mabel Comes in the Room is very close to Herman’s title tune Hello Dolly in tone and style save for the former using the full ensemble once it builds, and both come at about the same point in their respective shows – early in Act 2. While the score is largely up tempo, it does have variety ranging from big brassy numbers as previously mentioned, to silent film era piano work, to some delicate ballads.

SBMT has signed on for a challenging production in Mack and Mabel. Some portions of their handiwork are well done, while others fall a bit short of the mark.

Director C. Michael Traw has assembled a varied cast led by Walter M. Mayes (Mack Sennett) and Mary Melnick (Mabel Normand). Mayes and Melnick’s stage chemistry is exquisite, and it’s fun to watch their story unfold.

Mayes’ bigger than life presence (he’s 6’7.5”), makes for a few lighting challenges, but he doesn’t let that faze him. He shows depth and range in this role effectively utilizing his skills as a storyteller applied to Sennett’s journey. Vocally he’s believable and delivers on all his songs, such as the bombastic When Movies Were Movies (successfully competing against the orchestra) and the heartfelt Happy Ending, with appropriate expression. His acting encompasses numerous subtleties as we follow Sennett’s evolution throughout the story.

Melnick plays the foil to Mayes’ attention and “direction”. Her range is evident from their first meeting as a waitress just doing her job landing unknowingly in the middle of a slapstick movie scene with Mark Drumm (Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle), but she shows she’s up the challenge. She too has a strong presence. She’s the one who pursues Sennett in their romantic entanglement, at first willing to accept his terms, and later wanting more. Vocally, she has impact and has good range in her musical expression.

There are some nice scenes with Mayes and his movie studio staff where Traw employed very effective light/shadow/freeze frame sequences to enhance the impact of each speaker. In particular, Mayes, Patrick Kelleher (Frank Capra), Sarah B. Griner (Lottie Ames), James Creer (Andy), Mark Drumm, Gary Sanford, Jr. (Kessel), and Kevin Cornelius (Baumann) provide some very nice exchanges in this mode.

The costume choices fit reasonably well for the most part, and the color transition from drab beiges and earth tones in NY to bright colors once the story moves to LA provides a nice contrast.

The costumes, set, and lighting choices result in good effects. When “filming”, the world changes to black and white, even in LA. This is most evident in the finale to Act 1, Hundreds of Girls, when the beach scene is still all in black and white. The vocals work well in this number, but the choreography is more mixed. While the use of spiral patterned parasols is a nice touch, much of the larger ensemble movement isn’t quite in sync.

In fact in the show overall, while some of the featured dancers such as Bobby Giraudo and Melinda Beason are quite good, much of the larger ensemble choreography doesn’t work all that well. In many large ensemble numbers, too many of the dancers are clumped together, and the execution is somewhat sloppy. The exception is in Hit ‘Em on the Head where the whole point is to be chaotic and disjoint given this is a Keystone Kops number with some very amusing and acrobatic bits.

This production employs effective use of screen projections in a few places, the most compelling being the opening credits over the Overture. Given the story is about film, it’s appropriate to utilize this medium for emphasis, and there are a few other sequences where film is used on top of Sennett’s songs, again nicely enhancing the scenes.

By and large, the ensemble vocals are well done. The voicing is balanced in the cast, with the vocal harmonic and melodic lines weaving together nicely. There are, unfortunately, some balance problems between cast and orchestra.

Music director Mark Hanson’s orchestra is a little rough, particularly in the trumpets. The physical space causes some difficulties, in that there is no pit. The orchestra is in front of the stage, and with a Herman score known for its brashness, there is a tendency for the orchestra, especially the brass, to be overpowering. Opening night, perhaps owing to the fatigue of coming off of tech week, there were also some precision problems in the brass and in a couple of exposed reed passages. Hopefully these will smooth out during the run.

In spite of a few problems with the production, SBMT’s Mack and Mabel is very entertaining. The show continues through 4 June at the Saratoga Civic Theater, located at: 13777 Fruitvale Avenue, Saratoga, CA, 95070.

See: http://www.southbaymt.com/shows/mack_mabel.html for more information or to order tickets.

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