Reviews/Musical Theatre

Colour and movement carry WAAPA’s ‘Big Musical’

12 June 2022

WAAPA’s music theatre headliner this year is the little-known Mack & Mabel, and David Zampatti says that while it’s easy to find its flaws, it’s also easy to overlook them.

Mack & Mabel, WAAPA 2nd & 3rd Year Music Theatre students ·
His Majesty’s Theatre, 11 June 2022 ·

The WAAPA music theatre course’s “Big Musical” arrives, as regular as the Melbourne Cup, in the first half of June each year, and it’s always a cause for celebration.

That’s partly because it’s a chance to see a huge cast, a full pit orchestra and all the creative trimmings doing shows that Perth audiences would otherwise miss, either through lack of human resources, the available talent or the risk aversion of producers.

It’s also exciting to see the cream of Australia’s emerging talent as they graduate from the country’s pre-eminent music theatre course, knowing that the best and most dedicated of them will be the stars and spine of the companies of our commercial stage musicals for decades to come.

Over the years the WAAPA Big Musical has brought us some memorable entertainment; the delirious productions of Crazy For You in 2011 and again last year, a snap, crackle and popping How to Succeed in Business (Without Really Trying) and a dazzling Legally Blonde just for starters.

A tender moment for Mack (Jackson Britza) and Mabel (Sarah Monteau). Photo: Stephen Heath

This year’s production, Mack & Mabel (1974, music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, book by Michael Stewart), doesn’t reach those lofty heights.

The true story of the long, tempestuous relationship between the silent movie director Mack Sennett (Rohan Campbell plays him as an older man and Jackson Britza a younger version) and his star, colleague and on-again off-again lover, Mabel Normand (Sarah Monteau), is certainly worthy of a musical. But it brings with it the traps of a bio-musical, and Stewart falls into them all. In trying to encapsulate 19 jam-packed years into just two hours on the stage, his book becomes episodic and wafer-thin, his characters mere snapshots and lacking our empathy (and by all accounts sympathy for two famously hard-nosed chancers might have been hard to generate in any case).

Huge characters – Charlie Chaplin, Frank Capra (Harry Fenn) and Fatty Arbuckle (Justin Wise) – flit in and out of the show like dropped names, but there’s no time for any real interaction with Sennett and Normand, although in real life they were enormous figures in their careers.

Jerry Herman’s music is proficient, but unmemorable – there isn’t a song that transcends the narrative like, say, “One Enchanted Evening” does South Pacific, “The Street Where you Live” does My Fair Lady, or “I Dreamed a Dream” does Les Miserables.

Hooray for Hollywood! The cast of ‘Mack & Mabel’. Photo: Stephen Heath

The score’s problems weren’t helped on opening night by a less-than-sympathetic sound mix that obscured the vocal lines, a problem when, as was often the case in Mack & Mabel, the lyrics were explanatory or the singers weren’t especially strong.

And this is a music theatre course cohort whose strength is dance and movement rather than singing. The show’s big set pieces (lavishly choreographed by Jayne Smeulders) are spectacular and exciting, director Crispin Taylor and his set designer Steve Nolan wisely leave the deep His Majesty’s stage bare to give the dance numbers maximum room to move, and the whole effect comes alive with a lighting design by Tim Bonser that is in many ways the star of the show.

Alicia Mathews’ costumes and Max McKenzie’s visuals, featuring well-curated clips from the Sennett and Keystone studio’s originals, are a delight.

Add some stylish supporting performances, notably Regan Barber as another of Sennett’s stars, Lottie Ames, and an energetic 29-piece orchestra (who gets to have a 29-piece orchestra?) conducted by Tim Cunniffe, and it’s easy to forget the shortcomings of the script, the songs or the sound.

And, anyway, it’s WAAPA’s Big Musical and, in this town, that’s a one-horse race.   

Mack & Mabel continues until 16 June 2022

Pictured top: Sarah Monteau as Mabel amid the colour and movement in ‘Mack & Mabel’. Photo by Stephen Heath

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Author —
David Zampatti

David Zampatti has been a student politician, a band manager, the Freo Dockers’ events guy, a bar owner in California, The West Australian’s theatre critic and lots of other crazy stuff. He goes to every show he’s reviewing with the confident expectation it will be the best thing he’s ever seen.

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