Review: Mack And Mabel @ WMC
The story of early cinema is normally a sad one. How "talkies" and then colour films blew away their predecessors in the ever-evolving medium caused many creatives to pack up and go home. Rudolph Valentino is a great example of this, a silent movie star so successful until the arrival of sound. His voice just wasn't up to scratch with his smouldering persona, leading to the end of his career. But, there were some who didn't give up. After all, silent film is eternal...
Mack Senett is the Oscar-winning cinematic king of silent slapstick. With his motley crew, they created the films that would have caused many a belly laugh in their day. It all changes when Mabel Normand arrives on set brandishing a snack for a hungry actress, and they never look back. It doesn't take too long for her to be convinced to be part of the act and she soon develops a celebrity status. Through bickering about cues and aesthetic differences with Mack, she eventually leaves to pursue her career elsewhere. Upsetting themes creep in about heartbreak, drugs and alcohol, as Mabel begins to fall into the regular sins that stars are often known for, eventually leading to tragic consequences.
Jerry Herman's musical does justice to the era and the craft of filmmaking. The story, though not packed with detail, moves along at a gentle pace, making the audience hope that the two get together again in both love and work. The sad fact is: had Mabel put up with Mack's directorial orders, she wouldn't have trotted off to France and would perhaps not have picked up a drug habit. The songs are very good, but only a few are stellar. I Wont Send Roses, Movies Were Movies and Tap Your Troubles Away stand out for their sweet melodies and show-stopping moments, which you could only ever get in a musical.
The evergreen Michael Ball as Mack is nearly perfect. The rowdy nature, a cantankerous sensibility and a flair for funny are what holds this character together, delivered with expected flare by Ball. As Mabel, Rebecca LaChance is the honest, stern but also loving sort, who, although never expected stardom, seems to love it all same. The age difference between the characters is evident, but the apparent romance does buildup to the tiffs on set, leading to regretted words and a pie fight.
The rest of the cast also flesh out the time period with decent American accents, well-paced comic timing and stupendous dancing and singing. The proof of how comedy has changed is evident in the well-choreographed police routine. We may not have laughed, but audiences of yesteryear would have. In her dismay, Mabel is vexed at the notion of having silly bobbies in her shot, thus, she proves her worth as a "respectable artist" and not doing films just for the laughs.
There is no big finale in this musical. The happy ending, something upon which Mack often insisted in his own work, has brutally vanished here. Mabel, through her addictions (and also a case of tuberculosis), tragically dies at the age of 37. She lingers around Mack for some time, sitting and smoking, but eventually she gently walks offstage, as a curtain rises for her departure and we get to see her on film one last time. Mack watches with longing and truly appreciates how much she gave to him, in his heart and onscreen.
Now that's heartbreak.
Rating: 4 stars.
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Image Credit: Manuel Harlan via WMC website