Playing pioneer filmmaker Mack Sennett, Gary Sandy sings, "I promised you a happy ending" to wrap up the classic Jerry Herman musical Mack and Mabel, opening the 2006 season at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati (ETC). It's a bit startling to be at the "ending," because the show only began about 75 minutes earlier — that's the length of the first act of a typical musical.
This production, directed by Producing Artistic Director D. Lynn Meyers, is a concert version of the 1974 show Herman (who created Hello Dolly! , La Cage aux Folles and Mame) calls his favorite. Fully staged, Mack and Mabel takes about twice as long as ETC's rendition, which includes all the music but has abandoned much of the story-telling. What's onstage is good — in fact, very entertaining — but it feels truncated and underdeveloped.
(Note: I've never seen a production of Mack and Mabel, so I'm not comparing this staging to something else. My observation is that ETC's production feels like too much information has been removed.)
Sennett was an innovator of early film, devising many elements of comedy that became commonplace in the silent film era, writing and directing incessantly for about three decades. He tells us that D.W. Griffith made moves of "passion and grandeur," adding, "Mack Sennett just made movies."
Mabel Normand was his leading lady, a waitress from Brooklyn he discovered in a deli.
She had a remarkable flair for physical comedy, and Sennett made her into a popular comic star between 1911 and 1920. They were attracted to one another but never married. Instead Normand fell prey to a fast crowd and had her reputation ruined by her proximity to the murder of a famous director.
Sennett tried to help her by casting her in a feature film, Molly O', when others turned their backs, but it was too late. She died in 1930 at the age of 35 — a victim of drugs and alcohol. The irascible Sennett lived until 1960, although he retired from filmmaking 25 years earlier.
Neither Sennett nor Normand were likeable people, and their relationship was more combative than romantic. That might be why Herman's musical has never succeeded with audiences.
Perhaps that's why it seemed that a concert version presenting Herman's pleasant score with minimal narrative framing would work. Unfortunately, we're left with little sense of their relationship and only a minimal impression of Normand's character, despite actress Susan Nock's valiant efforts.
On a pure performance level, this production is truly enjoyable. Brian c. Mehring has created another memorable set, a rectangular gleaming white floor (perhaps a movie screen?) surrounded by a litter of film canisters. Overhead an antique film projector, pointed toward the audience, occasionally flickers to life. To the rear are seven high director's-style canvas chairs for the seven performers, plus a grand piano from which Scot Woolley accompanies and music directs. None of the actors wear microphones — and it's a pleasure to hear good, natural voices with spirited piano playing.
Sandy is convincing as the aged Sennett, who quickly transforms into the force of nature who generated hundreds of films. He sings and dances with style and verve. Nock has a great voice and looks like she could portray Normand convincingly — if she had more material to work with. Jeff Parker plays Frank Capra, a screenwriter who thinks Mabel can do more — but again, there's not much to him in this version.
Dancer Patti James brings another performer, Lottie, to vivacious life, especially in a big tap number, "Tap Your Troubles Away." But that number seems more like a diversion than part of Mack and Mabel's story.
I'm torn in my evaluation of this show — there's genuine talent onstage, and what they do is entertaining. But I left the theater without learning enough about this pair to love them or hate them. I left wishing I'd seen more. Grade: B
MACK AND MABEL continues at Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati through Oct. 1.