Summer Musicals: Mack & Mabel, Ragtime

Mack and Mabel , Ragtime.

There are two wonderful seasonal, short-run musicals in London this summer to take your mind off the Olympics: Mack & Mabel in the small and lugubrious Vaults at the Southwark Playhouse, and Terrence McNally, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’s Ragtime at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. If you are a lover of musicals, you cannot afford to miss them.

Both are set in the same early twentieth century time period in US history. Both are gloriously sung and performed with large hidden orchestras and skilful productions on engaging bleak stages. And both are musicals that have had  ‘marginal ‘ lives in the UK. They have not been great successes in the past: not least because one is overtly political ( Ragtime had a short run at the Piccadilly in 2003 );  and the other is Jerry Herman’s dark musical, the one without the ‘happy ending’ ( Mack & Mabel opened on Broadway in 1973 to a scant 63 performances and only came to London for s short run in 2006). Both are passionate labours of love that thrill the audience. They are not obvious choices for a summer audience  and it is daring for Thom Sutherland and Timothy Sheader to direct them to their glory on the London stage.

Mack & Mabel tells the story of the tragic love affair of Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand against the backdrop of early film making. It is, I think perhaps, Jerry Herman’s finest score – all his styles and moods are here celebrated; and those who know his other scores (like DollyMame and Cage!) will hear his rifts and moods at work again. And here the performances are without exception stunning: but cold tingles down my spine have to be reserved for Laura Pitt-Pulford who is Diva of the Year for me.  Ragtime is an epic musical – 35 songs of wide range drive  through three tales of migration, black servitude and bourgeoise life. A huge cast spreads over the open air stage and merges Doctorow’s famous story of past America with contemporary omens of bad more times. It is amongst the most complex and politically aware musicals I have seen.Those who say musicals are always silly and optimistic should think again. Darkness, tragedy and even politics awaits you – but with great joy and passion!

Two glorious moments in the theatre this summer.

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