Words by Melissa Blease Playing at the Theatre Royal Bath until 22 October
Bath Light Operatic Group are renowned for their spectacular productions at the Theatre Royal Bath, which represent a unique point where two of the city’s longest-standing cultural institutions collide. But like TRB itself, BLOG has developed, matured and moved with the times as smoothly as… well, as smoothly as Mabel Normand appeared to transition from New York deli waitress to one of America’s most successful silent movie stars of the late 1920s.
In reality (and this is indeed a real-life tale), Mabel’s route from sandwich delivery girl to superstar wasn’t smooth at all – and while BLOG’s ambitious revival of Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman’s 1974 musical is, on the surface, a full-on, all-singing, all-dancing affair, it doesn’t shy away from revealing the trials, tribulations and tragedies behind the silver screen’s golden age glitz.
As the ambitious Canadian-born filmmaker, director and film studio owner Mack (‘The King of Comedy’) Sennett, Geoff White plays his pivotal role in Mabel’s life to the powerfully charismatic max. As he ruminates on his career in a series of flashbacks, we learn not only about the highlights (his Keystone Cops; his iconic Bathing Beauties; the role his studio played in bringing now-legendary stars such as Fatty Arbuckle into the public domain), but also about the poignant relationship between him and his young protégé Mabel.
If Mack had, at one crucial point in particular, allowed himself to reveal the emotions locked deep within the brittle, stubborn armour of the workaholic constantly striving for recognition and acclaim, might the story of Mack and Mabel have had a different ending? White keeps us guessing… but ultimately leaves it up to us decide.
As Mabel, Grace Macdonald staunchly refuses to play anything close to the role of victim, giving us a well-rounded, headstrong leading lady to believe in from the start, channeling iconic musical theatre characters in the Sally (Cabaret) Bowles, Annie (…Get Your Gun) Oakley and the Evita version of Eva Peron league to create a memorable, bewitching character (with powerhouse soaring vocals, too) that’s most definitely all her own work.
But BLOG’s take on the tale of Mack & Mabel owes as much to each and every member of the impressive ensemble cast as it does to those in the eponymous roles. Musical Director Matthew Finch’s orchestra – playing live on a raised podium towards the rear of the stage – work in perfect harmony with the impeccable choreography (the tap dancing extravaganza in particular is flawlessly sharp). Meanwhile, the costumes are suitably spectacular and the overall production values impressive to say the least, with artful video projections adding elegant reminders of time and place to proceedings and evoking an astute sense of nostalgia for a time long since past.
As Mack Sennett said in a 1928 interview with Photoplay magazine journalist Theodore Dreiser, “the public is steadily getting harder to please.” BLOG staunchly refute that statement by once again putting stars in our eyes.