Mack And Mabel in concert
London Musical Theatre Orchestra,
23rd September 2017
This wonderful new professional London orchestra approaches its first anniversary with this stunning rediscovery (and reassessment of) Jerry Herman´s legendary ´flop´musical (it survived a mere 66 performances and six previews on Broadway in 1974, and has proved problematic in umpteen different revivals since) based on the career of film pioneer Mack Sennet and his amour with delivery-girl turned movie star, Mabel Normand. And the great thing about LMTO shows is that they just keep on getting better, and better, and better. Not for nothing did a near capacity audience turn out to populate three out of four levels of this roomy Matcham theatre on Mare Street, exactly the type of building where Sennet and Normand would have felt most at home, to cheer the sensational cast and production – and, of course, the orchestra – to the rafters.
Taking the leads, David Bedella, literally just off a plane back LA, seized the role with an instinctive grasp of its showbiz ethos and ran the whole length of the field with it, pushing past any vestigial obstacles in Michael Stewart´s script, all the way to the finishing line in virtually one dazzling home run. Acting as so much more than just his first cheerleader – this show is nothing if not about the sexual politics of stardom and the entertainment industry – new West End signing Natasha J Barnes marked Bedella´s every step and deservedly won a standing ovation for her counter-attack second act ballad, one of the scores biggest, flashiest pearls, ´Time Heals Everything´, a song that, apparently, she now owns. When was the last time you suddenly saw one of those punctuate the action in an apparently lightweight musical comedy?
If it´s not been in a while, well, maybe the reason is that this is emphatically not a lightweight musical comedy. We get life wearing all of its warts here, from hard-boiled, wisecracking dialogue at the start, through to the chikanery and cheeting of small-time business folk, right on up into gangster´s molls, drug-dealing and sexual exploitation, with a little bit of moidah t´rown in!
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the show is set in Hollywood, and it doesn´t let you forget it for a minute. In a slightly reduced roll-call of characters for this performing version (thanks to long-term Jerry Herman survivor, director Shaun Kerrison, working wonders in almost no time at all with a big and difficult to bring together all in the same spot cast), we have an almost French classical line-up of eight players in the squad, and plenty of palace intrigues and farcical goings on to keep them all hopping on their toes. Tiffany Graves´tall, almost Nordic Lottie, a smashing counter-balance to Barnes´ soulful Mabel, was the echt voice of the soubrette, and hoofed her way with devilish aplomb through the delicious ´Tap Your Troubles Away´- a rare thing, a composer parodying himself, while also hommaging and sending up an entire oeuvre of frivolous optimistic crowd-pleasers. Anthony Whiteman was on hand to fix the choreographic splendours of the gig, including the biggest chorus line in town: a cool 60 girl mob that – utterly magically – swarmed through the auditorium for ´Hundreds of Girls´, making sense of the number in the way that only an expensive ensemble bill can. It was, like so much in this show, breath-taking, simply awesome, and filled the heart with pounding joy. Cameron Mackintosh, you will wish you had been there!
Other parts were taken by ebullient Jack Edwards (Fatty Arbuckle), elegant and also homely Liam Tamne (Frank…and did you know he is actually Frank CAPRA? This show is full of surprises.), Will Arundel and Matt Harvey´s were the irrepressible moneymen, Kessel and Baumann, and – in the welcome presence of the villain – Oliver Saville gave us someone to hiss´n´boo at in William Desmond Taylor. And there was a goodly sized chorus, joining in with the fun from various points on the pitch, and as if that were not enough, there was also a troupe of the most accomplished feature dancers. But an LMTO show is – ultimately – all about the orchestra. Here we got the full 32-pieces of the publishers´ dreams, and this was – we were reliably informed – the biggest band EVER assembled for any performance of this exquisite score. They played magnificently. Fittingly, the brass section probably ran off with the shiniest moments, but the huge string section, sub-divided into harmonic heaven, pulled hardest on the heart strings. Afterwards, in a very glamorous party, Kim Criswell was on hand in the audience to remind us that, ´Jerry Herman couldn´t write a bad song´. In this show that was proved time and time again. A fine dozen of clunking great hits was smashed over the goalposts in sterling fashion by MD and orchestral founder, Freddie Tapner (a man who, at this rate, I am going to start calling ‘Sir Fred’ any minute now, just to keep ahead of the game).
So, after all this heady excitement, where to go to next with the LMTO? Christmas, as they say, is coming and with it the LMTO´s seasonal visit to London´s wonderful Lyceum Theatre and its lush presentation of another American classic, ´A Christmas Carol´. Meanwhile, break out the gin and the angel dust and raise a toast to the dear departed, but wonderful pair, Mack and Mabel. God bless them, wherever they are currently now playing, and the LMTO!