Mack and Mabel

Michael Ball in Mack and Mabel at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton Michael Ball in Mack and Mabel at Chichester Festival Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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“Time heals everything,” according to the wonderful torch ballad in Mack and Mabel, but time has failed to heal Jerry Herman’s famously problematic 1974 musical, despite a number of attempts over the years including two previous West End outings in 1995 and 2005 (transferred from Leicester and Newbury, respectively).

In its latest – and probably grandest — incarnation yet at Chichester, it delivers as a tuneful parade of great songs and as sheer spectacle in the punchy choreographic contributions of Stephen Mear. But it fails once again the dramatic test of making a convincing journey of its true-life story of its two title characters: Mack Sennett — a silent movie director — and Mabel Normand, the star he makes but who is destroyed by a heroin habit, even as his own career falters with the arrival of the talkies.

The late Michael Stewart’s book, as revised by his surviving sister Francine Pascal, makes over-hasty and unconvincing transitions: they meet and before you know it, they’re in love; then they’re out of love; then reconciled before she dies. Cast as a memory play, as Michael Ball’s earnest, robustly voiced Mack Sennett revisits the old film studio he’s about to lose, it comes to intermittently flickering life as it brings a series of production numbers to life. But the musical — which ends with the bittersweet I Promise You a Happy Ending — only provides another false hope in a story that is all about relationships of bad faith.

Another putative, but in fact punishing, showstopper – I Wanna Make the World Laugh – also fails to deliver on that promise, since it is actually thunderously unfunny even though physical comedy experts Spymonkey are credited in the programme. Hundreds of Girls is similarly undone by featuring just 10. Only Tap Your Troubles Away, blissfully led by Anna-Jane Casey, is true to its title to engage the promised sense of joy.

But then joy is mostly in very short supply in this story – it comes mainly at the very top of the show, when Robert Scott’s onstage orchestra delivers a brassy rendition of one of musical theatre’s very best overtures, once immortalised by ice-skating champions Torvill and Dean, that rivals the other four best overtures ever compiled: Guys and Dolls, Gypsy, Merrily We Roll Along and On the Twentieth Century.

While director Jonathan Church previously scored a significant Chichester hit with Singin’ in the Rain, another musical revolving around the transition from silent films to the talkies, he can’t make this talkative musical soar. In Educating Rita, also revived at Chichester this summer, Rita famously suggests that the answer to solving the staging problems of Peer Gynt is to do it on the radio. Perhaps the answer to Mack and Mabel’s problems would be to perform its score purely as a concert.

The cast, however, can’t be faulted for their energy, and American import Rebecca LaChance — resembling a younger Sally Ann Triplett, but with not quite as much charisma — sings up a storm.

Jerry Herman's tuneful, troubled musical misses the mark again, but provides pleasures along the way