Although I've seen two terrific small-scale productions of Jerry Herman's musical biopic, this is the first time there's been a chance to see just how this love song to early movie pioneers would work on the big stage – and with enough money to throw at it to exploit the idea of actually making and showing "tribute" film footage. And before the lights went up, I realised there was another vital element of this great big show that was going to make all the difference – a big band with a wonderfully big brassy sound! So my feeling of well-being began with the overture. A trio of big, familiar numbers at the top of the show serves as a delicious reminder of Herman's lush score – at the same time sophisticated, yet drawing on that evocative minor "Jewish" fall.
Once the lights go up on the deserted movie lot about to be vacated by studio boss Mack Sennett at the end of his career, you won't be disappointed either. For of course book writer Michael Stewart's device is to have him look back over his long career and especially to the glory days that began when fresh young Mabel Normand tripped into his studio to deliver a lunch snack. She came in an unknown delivery girl and, well, you can guess the rest.
So the production revels in recreating the glory days of Sennett's Keystone Studios, spiritual home of the silent comedy two-reeler, complete with custard pie fights (apparently invented by Normand) and yes, you've guessed it, comic Keystone Cops capers and chases. These routines and more are lovingly recreated on stage with great brio by a company of triple threats (they sing, they dance, they act, and that applies to both principals and ensemble). They are not only spectacularly choreographed by Stephen Mears, but also so well drilled in physical comedy by Spymonkey's Toby Park and Aitor Basauri that they look as if they can actually afford to revel in what they are doing too.
One of the greatest delights of the storytelling is the recreations of silent movie footage: frames and frames of Mabel (played by Rebecca LaChance) are eerie and touching, as well as convincing. By the time the footage reappears at the end of the story, it has earned the emotional punch it packs.
The story of Mack & Mabel, as told by Stewart and revised by Francine Pascal, is of an uneasy working relationship that soon developed into an on-off romantic relationship – the latter summed up by Herman in Sennett's gloriously unromantic romantic manifesto, 'I won't bring roses', which is probably the show's best-known number. Sennett looks back in sorrow at how he missed his chance with Mabel and lost her to rival filmmaker William Desmond Taylor, a sinister character, who is shown encouraging her drug dependency to ensure she becomes dependent on him.
Although it makes a good story, the reality, according to a revealing programme note by Film Lecturer Rebecca Harrison, is that Normand was an accomplished writer/director/ producer herself. It does seem a shame that Stewart, and especially later reviser Pascal, did not tell the story of the rather stronger more empowered woman who was the real Mabel Normand.
Still it would be churlish to cavil too much, just because there is so much to enjoy here. Michael Ball is on top form as Mack Sennett, a detailed portrait of a man used to having his own way. After his last triumphant appearance at this address in Sweeney Todd with his outstanding Imelda Staunton as Mrs Lovett, it seems likely that he will follow her into the West End, where she is currently repeating her stunning 2014 Chichester success in the title role in Gypsy. Rebecca LaChance proves a fully justified American import to play Mabel, with a performance that manages to be both gutsy and ethereal at the same time.
Anna-Jane Casey, whom I had seen at the Watermill as a marvellous Mabel in their more chamber version of the show, shines again here as Lottie, the star already in residence at Keystone, who seems to have become Mabel's bosom friend. Her tap routine leading the whole ensemble in 'Tap Your Troubles Away', the show's 11 o'clock number, is simply breathtaking and joyfully life-enhancing. It's a real treat of a spectacle, entirely dressed in black and white with artful touches of scarlet. Designer Robert Jones uses the device of monochrome to great effect throughout the show to pay homage to black and white film both scenically and often with the terrific costumes too. The way he makes full use of the huge thrust of the Chichester Festival Theatre is a real joy.
There's strong support from the rest of the principals too, especially Jack Edwards as co-star of the Keystone stable Fatty Arbuckle. And then of course there is that orchestra under musical director Robert Scott, the very backbone of this great big glorious show.
By Judi Herman
Photography © Manuel Harlan
Mack & Mabel runs until Saturday 5 September. 7.30pm & 2.30pm. £8-£45. Chichester Festival Theatre, PO19 6AP; 012 4378 1312. http://cft.org.uk