Mack and Mabel, Chichester Festival Theatre, CFT, July 2015

What a wonderful breath of fresh air — an ultimately tragic story but brimming with self-confidence, energy and sparkle. How very different from the recent Covent Garden production of Rossini’s William Tell where superb music and singing was ruined by a flat-footed production team trying to be intellectual. Real cleverness relies on stagecraft, lighting and choreography, beautifully displayed here in telling a story that compels our attention every step of the way.

Mabel and Mack, all images CFT/ Manuel Harlan

Mabel and Mack, all images CFT/ Manuel Harlan

That story is about Mack Sennett, king of silent film comedy, and his inspiring yet tragic relationship with Mabel Normand, whom he plucked from obscurity and turned to stardom as a silent movie actress. She died in 1930 at the age of 37 while Sennett, nearly 23 years her senior, lived to be 80, receiving an honorary Academy Award in 1938 for his lasting contribution to comedy.

On the train to California

On the train to California

This musical, first produced on Broadway in 1974, received eight Tony Award nominations but astonishingly none for the wonderful music and lyrics by Jerry Herman. It is worth buying tickets for that alone with its charmingly flamboyant overture chosen by Torvill and Dean for their gold medal performance at the World Figure Skating Championships in 1982. No wonder, because the music with its mix of wistfulness, sadness and exuberance, stirringly conducted by Robert Scott, is a marvellous vehicle for dance. And in Stephen Mear’s choreography we had joy, style and just sheer fun, particularly the abundance of cops (Hit ‘Em On The Head) so full of sparkling energy, and the terrific tap dance routine for the whole Company in Tap Your Troubles Away — which elicited a spontaneous cheer from the audience. Wonderful.

The superb Michael Ball made a thoroughly convincing Mack Sennett, at one time an older man past his prime, at others a director full of narcissistic energy who knows exactly what he wants. His beloved and sparky Mabel whom he all too happily disregards, an attitude epitomised in I Won’t Send Roses, was appealingly portrayed by American singer Rebecca LaChance, and other performances came over well, particularly Anna-Jane Casey as an excellent Lottie Ames, Joseph Prouse as a very likeable Freddie, and Jack Edwards wonderfully light on his feet as Fatty.

Lottie and Company in glorious action

Lottie and Company in the tap routine

Whether this fine Jonathan Church production, with its original book revised by Francine Pascal, will go to the West End who knows, but in case it doesn’t a trip to Chichester is well worth the effort.

Performances continue until September 5 — for details click here.

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