jerry herman

Review: Mack & Mabel – Jerry Herman's love affair with the silent screen is a thrill

Rebecca LaChance (Mabel), Michael Ball (Mack) and company in Chichester Festival Theatre production of Mack & Mabel © Manuel Harlan 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.

Jack Edwards (Fatty) and the Keystone Cops in Chichester Festival Theatre production of Mack and Mabel © Manuel Harlan

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.

Michael Ball (Mack) in Chichester Festival Theatre production of Mack and Mabel © Manuel Harlan

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.

Review: Jerry Herman's Grand Tour is a breathless, though tuneful chase across war-torn Europe

The Grand Tour – Zoë Doano (Marianne), Alastair Brookshaw (Jacobowsky), Nic Kyle (The Colonel) - Jan 2015 © Annabel Vere There’s usually a good reason why largely forgotten material from the oeuvre of a master such as Jerry Herman remains forgotten. The Grand Tour had the shortest run of all Herman’s shows and has not even achieved some form of cult status among the cognoscenti, despite US actor Joel Grey starring as the original Jackobowsky.

Thom Southerland’s imaginative staging of The Grand Tour in the tiny space of Finborough Theatre is a minor creative miracle and makes you wonder what made it less than a success in the first place (in the same season as hits such as Sweeney Todd, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and They’re Playing our Song). Perhaps the New York audience wasn’t ready for a chamber musical with production values that didn’t overwhelm the simplicity of the story.

And that’s just what we have here, in the tale of Jacobowsky, a Polish Jew and eternal optimist who's been keeping one step ahead of the Nazis all the way to Paris, and Polish nobleman Colonel Stjerbinsky, who's almost comical in his knee-jerk anti-semitism, and who has papers he must get to London as they play a vital part in the fight against the Nazis. Jacobowsky has a car but can’t drive and the Colonel knows how to drive but has no car. They reluctantly agree to join forces, along with Colonel’s girlfriend, Marianne. The Colonel's initial dislike for Jacobowsky is reinforced as Jacobowsky befriends and then falls in love with Marianne. But is it possible that through their joint experiences in evading the Nazis and learning to survive, the two men might get over their differences and even come to admire each other?

The Grand Tour – Alastair Brookshaw (Jacobowsky) – Jan 2015 © Annabel Vere

Herman's source material was Jacobowsky and the Colonel, an original, semi-autobiographical play by Czech writer Franz Werfel, who collaborated with screenwriter S N Behrman to bring it to the stage in 1944. Like the main character in his play, Werfel, a prominent Jewish intellectual and playwright, was chased all over Europe by the Nazis before successfully escaping to America. Later Danny Kaye played the mercurial Jacobowsky in a film of the same name.

Phil Lindley’s fold out backdrop and fold up floor make maximum use of the limited space to create hotels, countryside, rivers, railway carriages, a café, circus, a Jewish wedding and a Nunnery! And Cressida Carre marshals the 11-strong cast with intricacy and panache to people all these spaces.

What also works this time round is the use of just two pianos, under the musical direction of Joanna Cichonska, to provide the right tone for this small-space chamber musical, allowing the words to dominate. Jerry Herman can’t write an un-tuneful song, even if they are not always memorable, and all 11 numbers here do at least move the plot along rather than hold it up.

The show gets off to a spellbinding start as Alastair Brookshaw’s beautifully understated and thoughtful Jacobowsky opens not with a song but with a whisper. And then he takes his audience into the spine-tingling opening number, 'I'll Be Here Tomorrow', detailing his family's painful path across Europe, settling in one city after another, not just escaping persecution, but making a new life every time. Here Brookshaw has this heartbreaking quality in his voice, but he also displays delicious comic flair, for example in 'Mrs S L Jacobowsky', dreaming of marriage to Catholic Marianne: "I'll go to mass and I'll respect her wishes / And she'll start using separate dishes".

Nic Kyle’s Colonel thaws appropriately in an almost caricature part and gets to sing (beautifully) the best ballad in the piece, the haunting 'Marianne'. Zoe Doano makes a charming Marianne and the rest of the ensemble splendidly fill the many other parts, especially in the requiste first act finale, 'One Extraordinary Thing'.

Southerland’s direction brings out the tension between the European acting style and the US musical style to great effect. It does not always paper over some clunky plotlines and the music just occasionally underwhelms, but this Grand Tour is worth seeing in its own right and not just by collectors of musical ephemera.

By Judi Herman.

The Grand Tour runs until Saturday 21 February. 7.30pm (also 3pm Sat-Sun). £16-£28. Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Rd, SW10 9ED; 020 7244 7439.