Mack and Mabel, Bath Light Opera Group, Theatre Royal, Bath

WHEN you set out to present the musical Mack and Mabel, you take your theatrical life in your hands. When it was first produced on Broadway it received eight Tony award nominations, but won none of them and only ran for only eight weeks.

When it arrived in England it was only the persistence of BBC disc jockey David Jacobs, who had fallen in love with the score, that brought it to public notice. It received another boost when Torvil and Dean chose to use the overture from the show for their 1982 winning Olympic Ice Dance routine.

When Bath MD Matthew Finch, who gave the impression that he loved the score as much as David Jacobs, and his 16-strong orchestra struck up the first notes of that overture, more than one person in the first night audience would have had memories of that electrifying ice dance routine reignited.

Despite that spirited start to the evening, the show got under way at a rather pedestrian pace. You could put that down to the quite dark opening sequence that sees Mack Sennett alone in his now deserted studio reminiscing about how it all started, but even when we were taken back in time to 1911 Brooklyn and the stage filled with characters for Look What Happened to Mabel, there was still a shortage of urgency in the delivery.

A criticism of Michael Stewart’s script, which has undergone several changes in many differing revivals over the years, is that it is too dark. It takes us on a journey though the career of the somewhat despotic Sennett and his Queen of Silent Comedy Mabel Normand, whose career and personal life flounders as  a natural clown tries to become a serious actress. Her life ended early, at the age of 37.

Director/choreographer David Baxter was not afraid to give the dark dramatic part of the story full rein, in the sure hope that the comedy within the story, and Jerry Herman’s lovely mixture of romance and brightly scored music, would redress the balance.

There was no doubting that the cast were up for the challenge, led from the front by the vastly experienced Geoff White as Mack and vivacious Grace Macdonald, making her debut for BLOG, as the tragi-comic Mabel. Champing at the bit just behind them was Sophie Baxter, grabbing every chance to lift the character of Lottie Ames and display her vocal and dance talents in numbers like Big Time and Tap your Troubles Away.

With even less ammunition, George Miles, Rob McDonald, Tristan Carter and Chris Kenning, brought the characters of famed script writer/director Frank Wyman, one-time top silent film comedian Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle, and the studio’s money men Mr Baumann and Mr Kessel, to vibrant life.

On opening night, a shortage of drive, and let -yourself-go joie de vivre, in the big chorus numbers and set comedy routines (The Custard Pie and run around Keystone Cops scenes) left you with the feeling that everyone was holding back just a smidgeon, as if afraid they might make a mistake.  This left the show unbalanced, with the darker side of the story becoming too dominant.

With the number of experienced talented people behind this production and on stage, you can say almost for certain that the presentation will tighten up, become far more balanced with each performance and be spot on long before the final performance on Saturday evening.



Photographs by Nick Feierabend

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