Large-scale productions of Jerry Herman's cult-hit musical Mack and Mabel don't come around very often – so do grab the chance while you can to see Jonathan Church's production which premiered in Chichester in the summer and ends a limited UK tour later this week in real style at the Wales Millennium Centre. Brushing under the carpet a disastrous actor-musician production of some years ago, this is the first time that Mack and Mabel has been seen on such a large scale since its West End premiere production of exactly twenty years ago. On that occasion, Caroline O'Connor's powerhouse performance as movie star Mabel Normand stopped the show. This time around, West End veteran Michael Ball draws all the plaudits as Mack Sennett, the silent movie director who is so engrossed in his work and obsessed with making silent movies that he refuses to either develop professionally into the latest fashion of talkies, or on a personal level to make the necessary emotional connection to his young protege Mabel, who is in love with him. As Jerry Herman's most famous song from the show goes, 'I Won't Send Roses'... and that's Mack Sennett to a tee. 

Mack and Mabel is the Jerry Herman show that has never fully succeeded on a commercial basis. Its stunning score is well known thanks to Torvill and Dean using the overture for an iconic ice-skating routine in the 1990s, and in no small part due to the efforts of the late, great Radio 2 DJ David Jacobs who regularly aired songs from the original Broadway cast recording of the show, starring the mesmeric Robert Preston and a young Bernadette Peters. However, the ending (which I won't give away here) and the juxtaposition of a sometimes melancholic story with Herman's cheerful and hearty show tunes have caused problems. This production comes as close as any other to solving most of those issues, really setting the time and period effectively in Sennett's film studio and attempting to show the reality of making movies against a backdrop of film clips from the silent movies themselves. Like his recent production of Gypsy, director Church focuses on the narrative element of the story and lets the showstoppers unfold around the action. As Mack has a new vision, the Beautiful Babes emerge from the film footage in 'Hundreds of Girls', and the riotous Keystone Kops appear in another scene, all choreographed with great flair by Chichester supremo Stephen Mear. Anna-Jane Casey almost stops the show in her two big numbers – the joyous 'Big Time' featuring Sennett's company moving to L.A. and the frothier 'Tap Your Troubles Away'. 

But it's the relationship between the two main characters, Mack and Mabel, that drive the show. Having failed to find a suitable Mabel in the UK, the producers cast their net wider and plucked young chorus girl Rebecca LaChance out of the Carole King musical Beautiful on Broadway to make her British debut. LaChance maintains the guise of the 'kid from the deli' who became a star by accident throughout, but needs more vulnerability for the later scenes where Mabel is hooked on more than just work. Opposite her, Michael Ball positively shines as Mack Sennett – a creator who just wanted to entertain people – much like Mack and Mabel composer and lyricist Jerry Herman. Ball is on full power both vocally and in terms of characterisation, with a noticeable stoop conveying both the seniority of the character and his inner determination. He narrates parts of the show directly to the audience, and his opening number 'Movies were Movies' really sets the scene for an evening set in an almost long forgotten era. Some twenty years after its West End premiere, this quality production of a perfect, yet imperfect, show should really be the one to take it back to the London stage.