Cloudy, with a chance of Glorious Feeling [by James Wenley]
“Raining live onstage!” shouts the poster. Play back Singin’ in the Rain’s most famous scene for a moment, Gene Kelly tap-splashing as only a man possessed by love (and a real life raging fever) can do. If there ever was a good argument for adapting the MGM film musical for the stage it would be the opportunity to see this iconic moment of care-free passion performed live. It does not disappoint. As gallons of water fall on his head, Grant Almirall’s Don Lockwood leaps, taps and twirls exuberantly on the flooded Civic Stage. I’m filled with childlike joy as he makes his big splashes, sending a few a gallons worth of water into the front rows too for good measure, as he kicks to each cymbal clash. I overheard many people expressing being in the “splash zone” (with complimentary rain ponchos), looked like a heck of amount of fun. If only the rest of the show could have been as perfect as this scene.
The Gene Kelly star vehicle was released in 1952, and the West End stage adaptation debuted 1983. This season comes from director Jonathan Church’s 2012 West End revival, via South Africa. What makes the film musical’s love letter to the cinema screen such a classic, and elevates it against other movie-musicals from its era, is how it embraces its film form. Set in 1927, at the dawn of the talking picture, it’s a nostalgic comic look at the upheaval the talkies caused in the screen industry, but the film is also a beautiful showcase for the development of technicolour, and has lots of knowing winks to the studio scene and celebrity machine. The show is something of a jukebox musicals, the songs, by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, featured in various MGM musicals between 1929-39.
To translate to the film to the stage, the production arguably needs to emphasise the film’s other antecedents, namely Vaudeville, and indeed, the Broadway musical. This it does only half-successfully. Musician Cosmo Brown’s (Steven van Wyk) high-energy number Make ‘Em Laugh is made for the stage as he pratfalls through the backstage world of a film set. The stage adaptation is fundamentally hampered however by how slavishly faithful this is to the film screenplay. This seems to be a rights edict; an interview with Church quotes him as saying that “we had relatively little freedom to alter the script”. While this may satisfy fans of the film, it means however that the stage production does not have the ability to be its own thing. So you’ll largely see carbon-copy reproductions of your favourite scenes. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. In You were meant for me Don’s transformation of a vacant film set using a few well-positioned spotlights and a wind machine is an equivalent magical transformation onstage. Lockwood’s montage flashback detailing his film career however cannot compete.
Individually, the cast are stars. Almirall’s film star Don Lockwood can win our hearts with a flash of his pearly whites, and his athletic grace is put through its paces in Andrew Wright’s choreography. Van Wyk is a boisterous third-wheel Cosmo, and Bethany Dickson’s Kathy Seldon, a stage actor dreaming of Hollywood success, gives us someone we want to root for. Compared with Dickon’s love match between her Maria and Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music last year, the chemistry between Dickson and Almirall is muted. Lockwood is attracted to Seldon because she’s the lone girl for whom his celebrity doesn’t impress, but once she acquiesces there aren’t really any other dimensions for the actors to explore. Kelly and Co could beam their charisma through the close-up, but Almirall and Co don’t have that luxury, and their scripted characters come off as rather vanilla.
In fact, Singin’ in the Rain becomes the Lina Lamont show. The silent screen vixen with a hyperbolically shrill speaking (and singing) voice, played by Taryn-Lee Hudson, is the only character who has a half-way interesting personality. She dominates the proceedings and almost single-handily carries the show’s humour. It is and outstanding performance, but rather rains out the nominal leads.
With the film within the play, The Dueling Dancing Cavalier, all but made by the time interval (and the first rainfall) hits, the plot is spread very thinly indeed in the second half. If the adaptation had more freedom it is here that they would need to do their most serious narrative interventions. The show is more or less spinning its tires until it can get to the inevitable full company, full splash-planet reprise of the title number in the curtain call. The one exception is the extended Broadway Ballet sequence (Gotta Dance!), where an opening number is conceived to be shoehorned into The Dancing Cavalier to make the film longer. This late sequence in the 1952 film makes for unusual pacing (and one of the reasons Act Two struggles for plot in this production), but it is such a filmic triumph that it doesn’t matter on screen. Here, the drab film studio set which has been our backdrop for most of the show finally transforms into technicolour, and the show finally announces itself as a bona-fide stage musical. It’s the stage spectacle we’ve been wanting, but it a case of being too little, too late.
There’s fun to be had with the process of shooting a film, and black and white film sequences (shot for shot remakes for the film) are well integrated. Costumes dazzle, particularly Lamont’s ginormous gown in Cavalier.
Lunchbox’s recent touring Musicals like The Sound of Music, Annie and Grease have all had famous film properties to help sell them, but Singin’ in the Rain was the production that most made me miss the film. Other than the glorious feeling of the rain dance, it does not sustain its argument for a stage adaptation. But in terms of fidelity, it is an excellent opportunity to see your favourite numbers – Make ‘Em Laugh, Moses Supposes, Good Morning, and of course, Singin’ in the Rain, in the flesh, which the opening night crowd responded to with a standing ovation.
Singin’ in the Rain is presented by David Atkins Enterprises, Michael Cassel Group, Dainty Group, Auckland Live and Lunchbox Theatrical Productions (phew!) and plays at The Civic until 24 May. Details see Auckland Live.