It’s hard to resist a revival of a classical musical, especially one based on one of the greatest musical films of all times. Its infectious music and sense of style seems to create a case for its enduring relevance and need to be seen in 2016, but this production of Singin’ in the Rain is a reminder that it’s essential to preserve a show’s heart if you want to bring it back to life – because if you don’t, it might look great, but have little emotional impact.
The musical, based on the 1952 film of the same name, with book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, lyrics by Arthur Freed and music by Nacio Herb Brown, focuses on the cinematic shift from the silent screen era to the talkies and the impact this had on Hollywood, and its stars, at the time.
In the show Don Lockwood (Grant Almirall) and Lina Lamont (Erika Heynatz) are the brightest of all silent movie stars, but the introduction of the talkies doesn’t bode well for Lina – her shrill voice and obnoxious personality are better suited to silent films. After seeing a disastrous early cut of Lockwood and Lamont’s first talkie, Don and his sidekick Cosmo Brown (Jack Chambers) find the solution in Kathy Selden (Gretel Scarlett), an aspiring actress who agrees to dub for Lina’s voice in their upcoming musical film.
Director Jonathan Church, who debuted this production in the UK in 2011, embraces the show’s charms (Don and Kathy’s romance, Cosmo’s humour, Lina’s melodrama) but, although he devotes care and generous time to the book scenes (generally all about the business of film), they are far less charming and dramatic than the narrative arcs contained in each musical number. Much of the first act feels slow, particularly when many of the unimportant book scenes are prolonged, and meaningful moments (Kathy and Don’s blossoming relationship, and their friendship with Cosmo) are only enjoyed in a few focused numbers (‘You Were Meant For Me’, ‘Good Morning’).
The transition in film to the talkies was a monumental cultural shift in the late 1920s, and in this production the stakes rarely feel as high as they should. It’s difficult for us to empathise with the drama of 1920s arts and culture – when our technological and societal scandals are so vastly different, and the concept of silent film is foreign to most people today – and when Church relies on fluffy comedy to keep the scenes moving, the show’s most basic plot seems to lack momentum and drive.
The result is an agreeable, pleasant production that rarely feels urgent and only feels exciting when the story is set aside for music and dance.
Thankfully, it’s lovely to look at and listen to, relying heavily on the rich orchestrations (by Larry Wilcox and Larry Blank) to carry the musical numbers, and the choreography, costumes and design to balance that aural pleasure with visual spectacle. Andrew Wright’s choreography adopts the style of the original film while keeping it fresh and unique. The more intimate numbers (‘You Were Meant For Me’, ‘Singin’ in the Rain’) are graceful, while the group numbers are cheerful and energetic, but with great technical proficiency (particularly ‘Gotta Dance’ and the curtain call ‘Singin’ in the Rain’). Simon Higlett’s set effectively encapsulates a 1920s sound stage, with bright costumes that show the glamour of the Hollywood era.
Grant Almirall balances Don Lockwood’s egotism with a charisma; he’s a magnetic leading man. His friendship with comic sidekick Cosmo Brown (a likeable Jack Chambers) looks and feels fun, especially in its most show-stopping number, ‘Moses Supposes’.
Lockwood’s relationship with strong-willed aspiring actress Kathy Selden (a fiery yet kind Gretel Scarlett, who demonstrates she is a true triple threat in this role) is exciting to watch develop; Scarlett’s Selden doesn’t compromise her independence and strength for the relationship, but rather develops a meaningful relationship with Lockwood. ‘You Were Meant For Me’ is a beautiful portrayal of their blossoming romance and the great chemistry they share, and demonstrates their deft handle on the dance numbers in an elegant pas de deux.
Erika Heynatz as Lina Lamont makes the infamous role her own – bringing her own flair and nuanced delivery of Lamont’s unique voice to the show; she’s the funniest thing about it.
This production of Singin’ in the Rain only feels truly exciting at a few key moments (namely its most iconic moments from the film, like ‘Good Morning’, and ‘Singin’ in the Rain’) and the reality of the changing film landscape seems like something we have to endure to get to the good stuff – the love story and the friendly hijinks of the central trio. It is perhaps the lightness of the piece, the most human side of it, that most appeals to modern audiences- a true escape from society’s worries and an indulgence in the frivolity and fluffiness of musical theatre.