REVIEW: Mack and Mabel

The plethora of empty seats at last night’s opening of MACK AND MABEL probably reinforces the notion that certain titles sell – and others do not.  Thankfully UC-CCM and its musical theatre department especially sees part of their mission to produce a variety of shows, even if no one has ever heard of them.  MACK AND MABEL, a rarely produced musical about the life of silent film stars Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand, features a gorgeous score by Jerry Herman (with a more lackluster book from Michael Stewart).

Despite the show’s faults, this production is a triumphant demonstration of just how good CCM is.  Multiple disciplines have come together to create musical theatre magic.  The results are magnificent.  Under the direction of Aubrey Berg, who’s celebrating his 30th year at CCM this year, performers, costumers, wig makers, musicians, choreographers, scenic designers, lighting students, and e-media folks have all joined forces on this elaborate two-act musical.  (Act One ran about 80 minutes; Act Two about 55 minutes.  There is a fifteen-minute intermission).

Patti James, who is retiring this spring, takes the cast of almost 40 students and harkens back to the glory days of musical theatre with enormous – and long – production numbers.  Spotlighting some of her best dance students, she uses every inch of the Corbett Auditorium stage.  Meanwhile, there are quiet, intimate moments between the main characters that somehow Berg manages to keep dynamic. The contrast between the two would be jarring in the hands of a less capable director.  Instead, this show is seamless in its transitions.

Evan Roider, a graduate student and musical director, helms the pitch perfect orchestra and conducts the prelude with style.  Reba Senske worked overtime on the hundreds of costume pieces for this production, while Kelly Yurko’s wigs and makeup are as stunning as ever.  Mark Halpin flies in beautiful sets, and drops others through lifts in the stage floor.  And Pauline Humbert, a sophomore in E-Media, breaks up the action with video projections from the silent film era adding extra to the live biographical narrative.

Standouts in the ensemble are Kyra Christopher, who has a standout moment on the number “Tap Your Troubles Away.”  Also excellent is the always consistent Karl Amundsen, who brings a quiet confidence to Frank, the writer.  Freshman Nick Berninger is wildly entertaining as Fatty Arbuckle and senior Dan Gettler (along with Kevin Chlapecka) support their scenes well as the two financial backers for Mack’s movies.

While there is a huge cast, the focus is singularly on the relationship between Mack and Mabel.  Mack, played by sophomore Alex Stone, is a successful movie director.  His sense of physical comedy and timing revolutionized motion pictures in the early 20th century.  Mabel (Junior Emily Celeste Fink) literally wanders on to a set selling hot dogs and Mack is struck with her presence that he makes her into a film sensation overnight.  Eventually, they fall in love; but it’s a relationship conflicted by their business interests.

Thankfully, both of these actors have oodles of charisma.  Stone, who has one of the most amazing high tenor voices, uses the bottom of his range for this one showcasing his tremendous talent.  His confidence, presence, and no-nonsense approach to his performance makes what could be a very unlikable hero into someone we can root for despite his flaws.

As good as Stone is, Fink is another stratosphere than everyone else on stage.  However, she never overpowers anyone else. She never upstages them.  Watching her, one has a sense that she knows precisely what she is doing at all times – and why she is doing it.  I’ve seen tons of actors with expressive faces and big eyes.  Fink is calculated in how she uses her assets, though, and achieves maximum impact from the minute she walks on stage.  Her transformation from the wide-eyed newbie to hard-boozing movie star is subtle, but brilliant.  And if anyone can top her performance of “Wherever He Ain’t” – and I do mean ANYONE – I’d be surprised.

I’m so glad we still have more time with these two students before they graduate.

MACK AND MABEL plays through this weekend.  If you want to see classic musical theatre done the way it oughta be, this show is a must see.  I highly recommend it.

MACK AND MABEL runs through Sunday afternoon at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music.  Click here for information and tickets.