Mack and Mabel is a polarizing production, albeit one that’s undeniably charming. It’s not the story that’s divisive, as this is a thoroughly entertaining romp with the larger-than-life characters of the silent film era. Rather, it’s that Plain Jane Theatre’s version of this lesser-known 1974 Broadway musical is mostly on-book: the company only had eight rehearsals before staging the show, so each cast member carries their red script binder throughout.
Mack and Mabel is set during the bygone era of film’s early days at the beginning of the 20th century. We’re following slapstick comedy director (and bad-tempered narcissist) Mack Sennett (Jeff Haslam), his main starlet Mabel Normand (Patricia Zentilli) and the rest of Sennett’s cast at Keystone Studios, whose dramatic hallmarks include falling over and taking pies in the face. The show opens with clips of the two-reeler slapstick films that made Sennett and his company famous, projections that are used throughout the show to flesh out its austere staging: by virtue of having to tote those binders around the actors are very limited in their movements. This also mutes the show’s energy somewhat, though the performers all do a very good job in capturing the exuberance and camp that makes these characters so fun to watch.
Each actor displays clearly different levels of familiarity with the script and it’s the few off-book moments, chiefly delivered in the musical numbers, that provide a window into the show’s true potential. Haslam is an excellent choice for the character of Sennett, perfectly capturing the director’s boorish charm; however, his performance is hindered by having his eyes mostly turned down towards his script—meanwhile, his leading lady, Zentilli, proves that eight rehearsals is plenty of time to memorize a good chunk of the dialogue. The hands-down show stealer is the completely off-book number “Tap Your Troubles Away” delivered by the fantastic talents of Amber Bissonnette, Jason Hardwick and Leah Paterson.
“I’ve only just learned the lines—I’ll get better with practice,” says Mabel in a phrase that perfectly encapsulates the essence of this production. Here’s hoping those are prophetic words, and Plain Jane gets the chance to bring us a fully off-book Mack and Mabel.
Until Sat, Jan 18 (7:30 pm; 2 pm Saturday matinees)
Directed by Kate Ryan
Varscona Theatre, $15 – $20