Whenever musical revivals roll into town, there’s always that sense of uncertainty about their ability to deliver contemporary audiences something that will truly impress; something timeless created around central themes as relevant to society today as ever before; something that can engage theatregoers as it would have done upon its first curtain rising on its debut performance.
In fact, when MGM’s film musical, Singin’ in the rain, first appeared on cinema screens in 1952, it was met with little of the critical fanfare you may have expected. It’s only over time that this particular work of Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen has come to be regarded as a cinematic masterpiece and arguably the best movie musical ever made.
Well over half a century later, the film musicals of MGM producer Arthur Freed’s era, led by the likes of Kelly, Fred Astaire and Judy Garland, remain loved the world over, and continue to act as a catalyst for many artists’ decisions to pursue careers on stage. Characterised by lush scores, lavish production design and those enduring icons in starring roles, the musical films of the early 1940s to mid 1950s represent an undeniably crucial period in the history of the musical.
And while stage recreations of these films may not remain etched in our memories (it’s interesting to note Singin’ in the rain didn’t actually find its way onto the stage until a Tommy Steele-helmed production opened at the London Palladium in 1983), any new outing of the classics face tough scrutiny from critics and punters who cherish the source material, and the ever-critical new audience.
The production of Singin’ in the rain now playing the Sydney Lyric is a recreation of the version staged on London’s West End in 2012, following a successful stint at England’s Chichester Festival. At the helm is accomplished UK theatre director, Jonathan Church, with a production that adheres remarkably closely to Betty Comden’s and Adolph Green’s original film screenplay.
But while remaining so faithful to the 1952 film and accordingly opening itself up for criticism as to lack of inventiveness or imagination, Church’s production feels far from stale. Instead, it’s a slick, dynamic, visually striking and stylish production performed with such panache that any questions regarding reinvention seem redundant.
For unfamiliar younger theatre fans, Singin’ in the rain is a comedic piece that takes a look at the Hollywood (or more accurately, the ‘Hollywoodland’) of the late 1920s. Following a rival studio’s enormous success with a talking film, head of Monumental Pictures, RF Simpson (Mike Bishop), decides the next film his studio releases, starring the its hottest properties, Don Lockwood (Grant Almirall) and Lina Lamont (Erica Heynatz), must also be a ‘talkie’. But while Lockwood is a singer and dancer by trade, Lamont’s speaking voice is grating, she’s unable to sing and is also completely unable to shake her strong New York accent.
In an effort to avoid the film becoming a catastrophic failure, Lockwood, his best friend Cosmo Brown (Jack Chambers) and an aspiring actress and singer he encounters, Kathy Selden (Gretel Scarlett) devise a plan to dub Lamont’s voice over with that of Selden. The idea is approved by Simpson, but trouble ensues.
It’s a light-on plot, but just as it provided a vehicle for Kelly to showcase his magnificent performing abilities to cinema audiences, it affords a tremendous opportunity for this excellent principal cast to demonstrate their truly triple-threat talents.
Scarlett’s Selden is pitch perfect and her tone crystal clear. It’s actually believable that Scarlett’s voice could turn around the fortunes of a potentially doomed picture. In her ability to move, Scarlett exhibits the same degree of ease, and when it comes to her characterisation, she’s absolutely convincing as the initially dismissive but ultimately sweet and endearing Selden. It’s a first-class performance.
Chambers also proves quickly his ownership of the role of Brown. He makes highly technical dance routines look easy, which is hardly surprising given his strong dance credentials, but his excellent comic timing is an unexpected treat, with great gestural and facial expression choices throughout the piece. It’s also a credit to Church having been able to coax this performance from an actor unexperienced in comedy.
Elsewhere, it’s Heynatz responsibility to ensure the audience has its fair share of laughs and she doesn’t disappoint. Over the past four years, Heynatz has astonished in revealing the extent of her talent as a musical theatre performer, courtesy of considerable diversity in the roles she’s taken on. Like Chambers, her comedic ability extends well beyond her successful delivery of lines. It’s via well-selected facial expressions and wonderfully over-the-top responses to cast mates’ dialogue, delivered in punchy flawless accent.
Nadia Coote is another member worthy of individual recognition for her outstanding performance here. In the show’s elaborate Broadway Ballet sequence (an absolute highlight), Coote fills the shoes once occupied by the legendary Cyd Charisse, and more than impresses through her skilful execution of Andrew Wright’s choreography.
Taking strong inspiration from Gene Kelly’s original routines, Wright has succeeded in choreographing movement that’s piece appropriate and highlights the skills of his dexterous cast, from tap to ballet to Charleston-infused routines. It’s the Broadway Ballet sequence that particularly puts the talents of these performers on show.
But no production of Singin’ in the rain can be considered a triumph without a male lead of the ilk that makes him worthy of the role of Lockwood. In Alrmirall, this production has that actor. From the moment he appears on stage, it’s as though he’s been plucked straight out of the era. He moves around the stage with natural grace from the get-go, betraying the extensive balletic training Almirall has undertaken. His performance of each dance routine is characterised by such confidence that when we arrive at the show’s best known moment (and climax to Act I), we can rest easy in the knowledge he’s more than capable of navigating the wettest parts of the stage to dance into interval sans injury. Vocally, Almirall shows he’s up to the task, and he has excellent chemistry with Scarlett, Chambers and Heynatz. All in all, he’s the right man for the job.
The showstopper sequence, built around the title song, is genuinely a joy to witness. The centrepiece of the entire show, the song, written by Freed with Nacio Herb Brown, is one musical theatre’s most hummable tunes, and the performance of it here is exactly what you hope it will be. The spectacle created by the 12,000 litres of water, used in every single performance, is suitably impressive.
Church’s Singin’ in the rain is likely to see you leave the theatre smiling. It’s not ground-breaking, it doesn’t provide any contemporary political or social commentary, but it entertains in spades. It’s a beautiful, carefully crafted recreation of an historically significant piece in the life of musical theatre, a charming time capsule for its audience.
Singin’ in the rain is now playing in Sydney before opening in Brisbane on 22 September, Adelaide on 1 December and Perth on 29 December. For full details, including how to buy tickets, please visit www.singin.com.au