No less an expert than Richard Rodgers once observed that there is no way to fix a musical that isn't working if the basic idea is not a good one, which is a good way to consider Mack & Mabel, a show with a book by Michael Stewart and songs by Jerry Herman that failed on Broadway in 1974. It told the story of silent-film director Mack Sennett and silent-film star Mabel Normand, whose professional and personal relationship was messy and complicated, not really conducive to the structure of a musical comedy. That was why, despite a typically tuneful score and strong performances by Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters, it flopped. But that tuneful score spawned a cult following in the U.K. that led to a concert recording and, with considerable revisions of the script, this 21-years-later London revival. The cast album demonstrates anew the score's tunefulness. Herman is a master at re-creating the sounds of mid-20th century show music, whether in torchy ballads or show-stopping production numbers, and both can be found here. In the only real alteration to the score since 1974, he has changed his mind and reinserted a production number originally written for the show, "Hit ‘Em on the Head," dropping the song that replaced it, "My Heart Leaps Up." The extended time allowance of the CD means it can run seven minutes, with a lengthy instrumental section, and similarly extended is the final production number, "Tap Your Troubles Away," Herman's version of the kind of Harry Warren/Al Dubin song that used to become a Busby Berkeley choreographic extravaganza in 1930s films like 42nd Street. Unfortunately, the stars of this version are much less impressive than those who played the parts on Broadway. It's not that Howard McGillin and Caroline O'Connor aren't talented, but they aren't well cast or well directed. McGillin, unlike Preston, is a tenor, and an earnest one at that. O'Connor adopts an exaggerated American accent. Both seem to be in love with the sound of their own voices, so that their showcase ballads, "I Won't Send Roses" for McGillin and "Time Heals Everything" for O'Connor, are overdone and therefore ineffective. Mack & Mabel was worthy of another major remounting, at least on the basis of its music, but this version, at least on the basis of the cast album, seems misconceived.
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AllMusic Review by William Ruhlmann