What better way to ring in the new year than staging a Broadway musical in only one week?
“It’s been a wild process—we’ve already had bruises in our two rehearsals!” says Kate Ryan. She is directing a production of Broadway musical Mack and Mabel through her theatre company Plain Jane, a pilot project for her goal of regularly staging lesser-known musicals throughout the theatre season.
By virtue of following a “concert” approach, the production will not be off-book, save for the musical numbers.
“I was inspired by a company in New York called Encore,” Ryan notes. “They bring musicals to the stage in a limited rehearsal time. Doing musicals in the past, I know that three weeks isn’t even enough—we would need at least another month to do this show off-book.”
Expectations were high for the original 1974 Broadway production of Mack and Mabel, as it was the brainchild of the same duo (Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman) responsible for the previous decade’s wildly successful Hello, Dolly!. Mack and Mabel tells the love story between Mack Sennett, Hollywood director and king of slapstick comedy, and silent film starlet Mabel Normand. Though reviews of the original production were favourable, the show fell into disregard.
“The big thing was that it did not have a happy ending: she dies at the end,” Ryan says. While this is true to life (Normand died at 37 of tuberculosis), Ryan suggests that at the time audiences were just warming up to more complex musical storylines.
“It came off as something that they just couldn’t quite grasp; I think they felt it a bit compromising,” she says.
Mack and Mabel’s script has undergone several revisions from the original; Plain Jane is using Francine Pascal’s revised version, which Ryan feels is a better showcase of the story’s strongest element: the relationship between the characters. This version is also much scaled-down from the original, a critical feature in allowing them to stage the show so quickly.
“Jerry Herman paints with these really big, broad strokes: he has big passion and big hatred, which works out perfectly with the silent-film age,” Ryan says. She explains that the performers have been able to minfe that pizzazz and splendor so that if audiences do notice the performance is on-book, it’s because that style is being mined for laughs—using the binders as props instead of roadblocks.
“I can’t imagine doing this in any other city, because Edmonton artists are so open-minded and willing to dive into a new process to put a show up and explore a musical in a new way,” Ryan says. “And Edmonton audiences are so smart—they’re not just happy to see Annie.”
Until Sat, Jan 18 (7:30 pm; 2 pm Saturday matinees)
Directed by Kate Ryan
Varscona Theatre, $15 – $20