BWW REVIEW: The Heartbreaking Adaptation Of The True Story of Mabel Normand and Mack Sennett Plays Out In MACK & MABEL
Tuesday 22nd November 2016, 7pm, Hayes Theatre Potts Point
Trevor Ashley returns to Hayes Theatre, this time to direct Jerry Herman (Music) and Michael Stewart's (Book) a moving MACK & MABEL. Based on the true story of the tempestuous relationship between the founder of Hollywood's Keystone Studios, Mack Sennett (Scott Irwin), and his first and possibly most famous Leading Lady, Mabel Normand (Angelique Cassimatis), this beautifully constructed performance also gives the audience an insight into the early days of Hollywood, a time when the industry was grappling with the new invention of talkies and two reel comedies was making way for serious drama.
Set designer Lauren Peters has created a wonderful expression of a movie sound stage, complete with Director's chairs, ladders, painted scenes, costume racks, road cases, and an ever present Ghost Lamp. An "improvised" curtain screen allows motion pictures to be worked into the backdrop in a similar way early movies combined backdrop scenes with foreground performance to help capture the movie making process and also transport scenes out of the backlot. Peters includes an incredible amount of detail and provides and ample selection of common objects for Ashely and Choreographer Cameron Mitchell to incorporate into the movement. Peters has also cleverly concealed Bev Kennedy (Musical Director/Keyboards) and her band behind a big Hollywood soundstage sliding door which is opened to reveal the musicians during the prelude to the second Act.
Whilst the set of a sound stage is relatively timeless, Angela White marks the passage of time with her extensive collection of costumes that takes the story from the more conservative styles of 1911 to the bobbed haircuts and fringed dresses of the 1920's flappers. The men's position within society is punctuated by their attire, from three piece suits to suspenders and shirts, to overcoats and trench coats, and signature trilbies and newsboy caps whilst beautiful costumes for the women help fill out Sennet's movie scenes from the famed Bathing Beauties and Lottie Ames' (Deone Zanotto) tapdancing chorus girls. Along with the progression of time and fashion, White also ensures that it is clear that Mabel's fortunes are increasing throughout the story, from a waitresses' apron to a jewel encrusted turban and extravagant fur.
Lighting designer Gavan Swift helps delineate the flashbacks where Sennett narrates his story, as an older "current" self in a spotlight, to a memory presented with the 'clarity' of full lighting. Swift draws on industry icons to illuminate the stage, from the ghost light, spotlights, flashlights and Scenic Artist, Rosalind Bunting's motion pictures that form backdrops and silent movies. Neil McLean's sound design gives the feeling of a cavernous soundstage as the voices are amplified to mimic the space. There does however seem to be a balance between the band and the amplified vocalist that causes some issues, possibly causing the singers to not quite pitch correctly and some phrases to lose their clarity.
As the feisty star that Mack Sennett finds while she's delivering a sandwich to the set of his latest movie, Mabel Normand, the petite Angelique Cassimatis is fabulous, giving the role sass, guts and heart. Cassimatis has a solid vocal with a consistent Brooklyn accent, infusing the texture and emotion into Mabel's songs, from the energetic and excited Look What Happened To Mabel, to the anger infused Wherever He Ain't, and the heart wrenching Time Heals Everything. In addition to capturing the drama and comedy of the role, Cassimatis proves her position as a triple threat with the dance numbers.
Scott Irwin's stature makes for an imposing contrast between Mack and Mabel as he towers of Cassimatis. He captures Mack's work driven intensity which is actually Mack's downfall as he choses his movies and the studio over the Mabel, who he realises, too late, that he loves. Whilst Mack specialises in two real comic movies, Irwin ensures that Mack's businesslike severity is expressed in his "day to day" operations when not pitching a show. Irwin has a haunting voice which captures a restraint and repression of feelings that threatened to distract him from his work, like I Won't Send Roses, a dogged determination to continue without Mabel with Hundreds of Girls and the regret and disbelief at the state of the industry as he reminisces in Movies Were Movies.
As Mack's other major star Lottie Ames, Deone Zanotto captures Lottie's loyalty as well as her position within the company that sees her tap into spotlight with Tap Your Troubles Away. As with Cassimatis, Zanotto has an equally strong voice and honest expression. Similarly, Caroline Kaspar's portrayal of Mack's musical director Ella captures a sincerity along with a bewilderment at Mack's behaviour as he opts to continue creating two reel comedies rather than the feature length drama's Mabel wants him to make.
Ashley has gathered another fine ensemble to take on the roles of Mack's investors and accountants, writers, performers and studio hands as well as rival director William Desmond Taylor's (Shaun Rennie) posse of hangers on. With a more "traditional" musical theatre direction, Ashley and Mitchell have drawn on the golden age of musical's big dance numbers, utilising costumes to transform the ensemble from the bumbling Keystone Cops to the Bathing Beauties that are part of Mack Sennett and Keystone Studio's real life legacy, and the more personal behind the scenes moments of the studio employees and 'family' as Mabel describes her relationship Keystone Studio's people.
MACK AND MABEL is a beautiful, heartbreaking story of love, loss, determination, addiction and stubbornness and is even more poignant because of the truth that sits behind it. Ashley balances the comedy with the regret and ensures that the audience is taken on a rollercoaster of emotions before they witness Mack's world fall apart when he's too late to show Mabel he loves her. Ashley also throws in little titbits of extra comedy, from the intriguing Bathing Beauty to Mack's suspicions of his colleague's intentions, elements unlikely to have been in the 1974 Broadway debut.
MACK & MABEL is a must see, filled with emotion, joy, sadness, hope and heartache, iconic songs sung by some fine performers and creative choreography that blends traditional styling whilst utilising the simple objects in the set.
Hayes Theatre, Potts Point
18 November - 18 December 2016