Southwark Playhouse, London, July 5-August 25
Authors: Michael Stewart (book), Jerry Herman (music), Francine Pascal (revision), based on an idea by Leonard Spigelgass
Director: Thom Southerland
Cast includes: Norman Bowman, Laura Pitt-Pulford, Jessica Martin, Stuart Matthew Price, Richard J Hunt, Peter Kenworthy.
The true story of film director Mack Sennett’s love for his star, Mable Normand, in 1920’s Hollywood is a dark one; bordering on obsession it’s tangled up with drugs and even murder. Jerry Herman’s musical has never quite worked because his score of show stopping, musical theatre standards sits awkwardly with the subject matter.
Director Thom Southerland has had the clever idea of making his production much, much darker than previous outings of the show. His team had a big hit at this same venue when the Evening Standard critic, Fiona Mounford, became smitten with their atmospheric production of gritty musical, Parade. It’s understandable then that they’ve recreated the same aesthetic with moody shafts of light through smoke and a setting which makes full use of a dank vault beneath London Bridge station that dares you to lift your spirits for too long. This is an environment to encounter melancholy stories and the tits and teeth of this jolly musical takes on a whole new dimension in this striking production which leaves you in no doubt from the outset that things will end badly. Big time musical theatre does occasionally break out when clever choreographer Lee Proud recreates all the fun of Mack Sennett’s celluloid bathing beauties, Keystone Copp chases or tap routines but these are all presented with the edgy, desperate energy of a film studio fending off the threat of bankruptcy.
I do wish they’d let another writer re-work the script, by any standards it’s shabby. It’s almost like someone’s forgotten to show us the pair actually falling in and out of love, instead we get snatches of narration telling us what’s happened, before the characters launch into fabulous numbers like Wherever He Ain't. How are we supposed to be moved when we’ve only learnt third-hand what’s prompting such an out pouring of emotion? Southerland does everything he can to help us with many striking images but is hampered by the shows refusal to “show not tell”.
Another reason past productions have failed is that the central characters are so damn unlike-able. On this occasion Laura Pitt-Pulford does a fantastic job of rounding out the role of fickle, dope-head Mable. She’s got a delicious smoky voice that melts your heart and she disarmingly retains her tom-boy vulnerability as her career ascends. Norman Bowman has a tougher challenge making us like Mack, a guy who’s either shouting or sulking but he’s very handsome and lighting designer Howard Hudson makes him look terrific as he moodily strides around about designer Jason Denvir’s evocative prop store set. Also looking fabulous is Jessica Martin as Lottie, Martin’s a much underrated musical theatre star who sings and acts the hell out of every moment she’s given.
The songs are premier league; I won’t Send Roses and Time Heals Everything are nothing short of genius and they’re gloriously sung here accompanied by a terrific band.
I doubt anyone will ever stage this flawed show with as much intelligence as this cast and production team.
VERDICT: **** (Four Stars) An admirable stab at fixing a flawed musical delivers some glorious singing and dancing.