Thursday, August 23, 2012

Mack & Mabel: Guest Review

I had to cancel my trip to London this summer (tiny violin for me) and so Ms. Kyle volunteered to go on my vacation for me. She also agreed to do a guest review of one of the shows I missed. For your reference, Ms. Kyle is one of the few people to bear witness to my early musical theater career--cut short by my inability to grasp even the simplest of dance moves and having no vocal range whatsoever. I'm delighted to bring you her curmudgeonly views on theater from her recent London trip--MBitter

Full disclosure: I am not exactly the world’s most avid theatergoer, and I don’t know a lot about theater, but I don’t let that stop me from having Opinions.

If there was any production of Mack & Mabel that could make me like this play, what they’re doing at Southwark Playhouse (through August 25th) probably could.

This production has so much going for it. Laura Pitt-Pulford is incredibly winning as Mabel. It was hard to take your eyes off her when she was on stage, and she has a fabulous voice, one of the most appealing musical theater voices I’ve heard in a long time.* She TORE UP “Wherever He Ain’t,” a high-energy “screw him” torch song. Laura Pitt-Pulford is worth the (eminently reasonable) price of admission.

But there’s so much more good stuff going on! The ensemble was great - really excellent singing, solid dancing, and every one of them seemed really present, reacting to things happening on stage in a way I don’t really remember noticing in a musical ensemble before. The production numbers felt big and were well-choreographed (if you’ve ever wanted to see something approximating a Busby Berkeley number performed by 10 people in an old railway tunnel, “Hundreds of Girls” near the end of the first act should satisfy you handily).

But, here’s the thing. I just don’t like this show. There are a lot of good, solid songs, but there’s a fundamental problem with the characters and the story. You know how some unhappy relationships are tragic romances, but some unhappy relationships are just kind of unfortunate, like the story of that friend of yours from high school and her jerkwad first husband? Mack & Mabel is the second kind of story.

This is the whole plot: Mack is an abusive workaholic director of two-reelers in the early days of Hollywood; Mabel is his naturally charismatic star. They have an on-again/off-again relationship. Mabel dies. THE END. (It’s based on a true story. This does not make it more interesting.) There’s some set dressing in the form of Frank Capra, Fatty Arbuckle, and the Keystone Kops, but that’s pretty much it. Plus, most of Mabel’s actions seem important in the show primarily insofar as they affect Mack. There’s some unfortunate Manic Pixie Dream Girlism.

My dislike of Mack and my frustration with Mabel for being with Mack reminded me of Carousel, another musical with a stupid, frustrating central relationship. But I think it’s kind of important that in Carousel, Billy dies** and Julie finds a way to go on with her life without him (even though she thought he was all she had going for her) while in Mack & Mabel, *Mabel* dies so that Mack can realize that maybe he’s been too focused on his career. Again, it’s all about Mack. And it’s not even interesting things about Mack!

And ultimately, neither Mack nor Mabel is sufficiently well-fleshed out as a character. Mabel came across as more interesting and likeable than Mack, but I think a lot of that was due to Pitt-Pulford’s performance. Why does Mabel take up with Mack in the first place, when he straight-up tells her he fully intends to be an asshole? Come down to it, why does Mack tell Mabel he intends to be an asshole? I guess it’s because he grew up poor in Canada? Since that’s literally all we learn about his backstory?

And here’s a really stupid nitpick Mack couldn’t have had a half-German Shepherd, half-Schnauzer mutt when he was six - German Shepherds weren’t invented until 1899, at which point Mack was 19 years old. There were basically no German Shepherds in North America until after the First World War, certainly not any half-German Shepherd mutts on Canadian dirt farms. Didn’t anyone else read Rin Tin Tin: The Life, the Legend?*** I’m blaming this on the book revision done by Francine Pascal (of Sweet Valley High fame).

So that’s how I feel about the play. Back to the production:

The Vault, which I think is a secondary space for Southwark, is a black box theater in a disused railway tunnel (cool! and musty! bring your inhaler!), seating maybe 120 people? (I’m terrible at estimating these things.) The set design, which consisted of a few pieces of furniture, plus props that were stored on utility shelving at the back of the stage area when not in use, was effective and made a lot of sense in the context of the show, which happens in flashback in an old movie studio. I was impressed/horrified by the amount of dancing and pratfalling the actors did on a bare concrete floor!****

Because it was such a small space, it felt kind of weird that all the actors were wearing forehead mics, or indeed that they were amplified at all - we were like five feet away! But I guess you get used to performing with a mic taped to your forehead, and you learn vocal techniques that rely on mics, and you’re not going to learn a whole new vocal style just because you’re in a small space. The orchestra was off stage and piped in, so they also had to compete with that, and presumably the conductor wouldn’t be able to hear them on his monitor without mics. It still felt odd.

And it *was* odd! I’ve never seen such a big show in such a small space. These people put on a musical with a cast of 15 and a 10 person orchestra in a little black box theater. Who does that? (I wish someone else would!) There were maybe 60 of us in the audience (it was a Monday night, and the the nearest Underground station was a bit of a disaster due to the Olympics). This was so much effort for what was clearly a labor of love that it kind of led me to think, “Really? All this for Mack & Mabel?”

But ultimately, it’s a really enjoyable production, and a great chance to see some talented young actors up close before you have to start paying big bucks to watch them from the balcony.

*For what it’s worth, I have kind of a problem with the predominant vocal style in 21st-century Broadway/Broadway-style musicals... I find most Broadway performers overly bright and nasal. That’s the curmudgeonly place I’m coming from.

**And goes to Purgatory or something? Carousel is such a strange show.

***OMG you should read it, it’s really good! War! America! Movies! Dogs!

****Another thing I was horrified by: the various takes on “Brooklyn” accents, but I will say no more about this; the actors are young, and may yet go forth and sin no more.

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