Silent film actress star/writer/director and producer Mabel Normand had one of those rags to riches to terrible falls from grace stories in her epic life that ended when she was only 37 years old.
She's been represented in any number of modern movies about the silent film era– Charlie Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle were frequent co-stars – and in 1974 a Broadway play opened depicting her relationship with powerful director Mack Sennett. Now Stages Repertory Theatre is bringing that play, Mack and Mabel, to Houston and the two actors playing the leads believe that 2015 theater audiences will embrace it.
“She not only was one of the biggest stars of the day – the millionaire equivalent of Jennifer Anniston and Angelina Jolie – she actually had her own studio at one point,” says Bridget Beirne (Road Show, A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline), who says she began researching Normand's life once she began talking about tackling the role with Stages Producing Artistic Director Kenn McLaughlin. Although a major comedic talent, who was well paid, Normand began abusing drugs and was accused in two murders.
Even though she was eventually cleared, the damage had been done. “The downfall she experiences at the hands of what was the first paparazzi scandal ever courtesy of Hearst newspapers is heartbreaking,” Beirne says.
Although nominated for eight Tony Awards 40 years ago, Mack and Mabel won none. Both Beirne and Tom Frey (2 Pianos, 4 Hands and Road Show) who plays Sennett believe Broadway audiences of that (pre-Sweeney Todd) time wanted happy endings on their musicals and couldn't accept the finish, even with an attempt at something brighter with the musical's final song.
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“We're ready for this kind of story now. We're no longer afraid of having an actual experience,” Beirne says, who added that the music by Jerry Herman is “amazing and gorgeous.”
Another factor is that since the original production there have been huge technical advancements for live theater, both said. “We're utilizing projection in the best way possible. It's actually a silent movie theater,” Fry says.
Performances run May 20 through June 28. 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. For information, call 713-527-0123 or visit stagestheatre.com. $19 to $65.