Michael Ball, who came to fame as the original Marius in ‘Les Miserables’, tries his best with the romance in ‘Mack and Mabel’, but it’s all a bit style over substance, says Brian Finnegan.
I have never been at a show where the audience burst into a spontaneous round of applause for a set change, but that’s exactly what happened at the opening night of Mack and Mabel, the latest big-budget touring production to grace the stage of the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre. The applause was justified – Robert Jones’ design, a mix of ingenious sets with on-screen projections is a wonder to behold, and it underpins this musical with an energy that’s true to its Hollywood in the silent era story.
Written by Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart (best known for Hello Dolly!), Mack and Mabel was a Broadway hit in 1974, but has remained a little known quantity on this side of the pond. It tells a pretty standard story of the auteur who falls in love with his muse, in the A Star is Born mode. The auteur here is movie mogul, Mack Sennett, who rises to prominence directing two-reel silent comedies, full of damsels in distress, mustachioed villains and prat-falls. His muse is ingénue Mabel Normand, a waitress who accidentally gets sucked into Sennet’s world, and heart, becoming a movie star along the way.
Michael Ball, who last wowed audiences at BGET with his turn Edna Turnblad in Hairspray, does his level best here, playing Mack as a loveably rambunctious megalomaniac, but something is amiss. Maybe it’s that his voice gets overwhelmed by the orchestra when he’s in the lower registers, or maybe it’s because the chemistry between him and co-star, Rebecca Le Chance, is paper thin – one way or another, it’s hard to imagine he once embodied the romantic heart in the original production of Les Miserables. Sure, his comic timing is spot on, and he nails the frenetic energy of a Hollywood gold-digger, but when push comes to shove, you don’t quite believe he’s in love with the girl.
For her part, La Chance belts out her numbers with aplomb, bouncing around the stage like she was born for it, but you get the feeling that her Mabel doesn’t even like Mack.
The star of this show is Anna-Jane Casey as Mack’s right-hand woman, Lottie. She doesn’t have a moment to dramatically shine (given that there isn’t even a hint of a subplot to hang her character on), but boy can she sing and dance. As the lead in most of the big ensemble numbers, she’s a riveting focal point, particularly with the penultimate song, ‘Tap Your Troubles Away’, bringing echoes of the wry cynicism of Kander and Ebb’s Chicago to the stage.
It’s a pity there’s not much more cynicism brought to bear. Mack and Mabel is a good old-fashioned show, but its values are far too hackneyed to make you really care too much about what’s happening plot-wise. Whenever the dialogue kicks in, you find yourself wishing for another song and dance extravaganza, just for the sake of it. As such, it’s not unlike a 1930’s Busby Berkeley musical, all spectacle and very little in the way of real substance.
‘Mack and Mabel’ runs at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre until November 7, booking here.
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