Thursday, September 2, 2010

Theater review: 'Mack and Mabel' at Broward Stage Door offers a lot to like

Ken Clement,‭ ‬Shane R.‭ ‬Tanner,‭ ‬Mara Gabrielle
and Joey Zangardi in Mack and Mabel.

By Hap Erstein

After first-rate productions of‭ ‬A Little Night Music and‭ ‬The Drowsy Chaperone,‭ ‬and now a very credible mounting of the problematic‭ ‬Mack and Mabel,‭ ‬we are going to have to stop being so surprised when the Broward Stage Door Theatre delivers satisfying entertainment.

The formerly erratic company has been coming through with the goods more and more,‭ ‬giving us hope for such demanding shows as‭ ‬On the Town and‭ ‬Light in the Piazza,‭ ‬which are on the schedule for later this season.‭

Mack and Mabel,‭ ‬the bittersweet tale of silent movie producer-director Mack Sennett and his‭ “‬Bathing Beauties‭” ‬muse and love interest Mabel Normand,‭ ‬is substantially darker in tone than composer-lyricist Jerry Herman’s megahits‭ (‬Hello,‭ ‬Dolly‭!‬,‭ ‬Mame,‭ ‬La Cage aux Folles‭)‬.‭ ‬Undoubtedly that is why‭ ‬--‭ ‬like Mabel herself‭ ‬--‭ ‬the show died before its time,‭ ‬running only‭ ‬66‭ ‬performances on Broadway in‭ ‬1974.

The script by Michael Stewart is sketchy at best,‭ ‬but it serves what is generally acknowledged to be Herman’s best score.‭ ‬Herman has long expressed a special affection for the show,‭ ‬which explains why he has been preoccupied with revising and reviving‭ ‬Mack and Mabel for the past‭ ‬35‭ ‬years.

Shane R. Tanner and Mara Gabrielle in Mack and Mabel.

The Stage Door production incorporates a lot of those revisions,‭ ‬but the show’s chief asset remains its songs.‭ ‬The score ranges from the highs of the anti-love ballad‭ ‬I Won’t Send Roses and the bluesy‭ ‬Time Heals Everything to a signature Hermanesque rousing anthem,‭ ‬When Mabel Comes in the Room,‭ ‬which brazenly rips off the title numbers of‭ ‬Dolly‭!‬ and‭ ‬Mame.‭

Although it is not the only reason‭ ‬Mack and Mabel failed to generate an audience originally,‭ ‬much of the blame is placed on the show’s downbeat ending.‭ ‬In all of its various revivals,‭ ‬efforts have been made to give the conclusion a more positive spin,‭ ‬even if only ironic.‭ ‬So it is at the Stage Door,‭ ‬which one could call less than honest,‭ ‬but then Stewart’s book takes plenty of liberties with the facts throughout the show.

Nevertheless,‭ ‬as long as you are not a film historian,‭ ‬there is a lot to like in this production.‭ ‬Shane R.‭ ‬Tanner,‭ ‬looking suspiciously like a young Orson Welles,‭ ‬carries the evening as crusty,‭ ‬staunchly unsentimental Mack Sennett,‭ ‬obsessed with making his two-reeler comedies and disdainful of anything resembling an art film.‭ ‬He sings with authority,‭ ‬delivers his dialogue persuasively enough and‭ ‬--‭ ‬to his credit‭ ‬--‭ ‬never bothers to try to soften Sennett’s character.

Less successful in an even less-dimensional assignment is Mara Gabrielle‭ (‬Mabel‭)‬,‭ ‬but she too knows her way around a song,‭ ‬belting out‭ ‬Wherever He Ain’t and‭ ‬Time Heals Everything with power to spare.

As part of the show’s revisions,‭ ‬the role of Fatty Arbuckle‭ ‬--‭ ‬another of Sennett’s stable of stars‭ ‬--‭ ‬was added,‭ ‬though he serves little dramatic purpose beyond comic relief.‭ ‬He is played here by the always welcome Ken Clement,‭ ‬who feels underemployed.‭ ‬The only other featured player is Kelly Cusimano as second banana Lottie Ames.‭ ‬She barrels through her second act number,‭ ‬Tap Your Troubles Away,‭ ‬well enough,‭ ‬but needs to pull back on her facial tics.

Director Michael Leeds builds scenes from the script outline,‭ ‬managing a more cohesive narrative than exists on the page.‭ ‬And whenever the story starts evaporating,‭ ‬he relies on choreographer Chrissi Ardito to cover up the plot holes with dance flash.‭ ‬Unfortunately,‭ ‬the show includes several extended sequences on the set of‭ ‬The Keystone Kops,‭ ‬Sennett’s most lasting legacy,‭ ‬but they are nowhere near as funny as the actual movie shorts that play before the show and at intermission.

Mack and Mabel is hardly a perfect show and probably never will be,‭ ‬but it has a great score and enough entertainment value to make it worth seeing.

MACK AND MABEL,‭ ‬Broward Stage Door Theatre,‭ ‬8036‭ ‬W.‭ ‬Sample Road,‭ ‬Coral Springs.‭ ‬Through Sept.‭ ‬26.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$34-$42.‭ ‬Call:‭ (‬954‭) ‬344-7765.‭

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