Michael L. Quintos
As the cliché goes, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.
That is perhaps partly the philosophy behind the rather faithful stage adaptation of the gloriously wonderful movie musical SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, now once again charmingly replicated in a smile-inducing local production at Musical Theatre West that continues through July 26 at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Long Beach.
An almost scene-by-scene, note-for-note recreation of the superb Gene Kelly/Donald O ‘Connor/Debbie Reynolds cinematic masterpiece that pokes cheeky fun at the movie world's initially awkward transition from silent films to sound-enabled "talkies," the musical theater iteration of SINGIN' IN THE RAIN smartly and painstakingly reenacts every key moment and memorable musical happenstance from the 1952 movie that many have since heralded as one of the best movie musicals of all time. This direct translation of such a beloved classic may seem like an easier route to navigate, but one can’t deny that adherently doing so ensures an endearing, nostalgic connection to its source material which all but guarantees to reignite people’s deep fondness for the film—and, therefore, transfer that affection for the stage show, too.
It certainly helps that the legendary Broadway dream team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green—who also wrote the snappy screenplay of the original film that was directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen—have returned decades later to adapt it with winning aplomb for this stage version, essentially creating a thoroughly engaging old-fashioned jukebox musical featuring the same MGM catalog songs mostly written by Nacio Herb Brown.
The results are extraordinary. Not only are these recreated key scenes just as funny and delightful to behold on stage, this adaptation itself allows for true classic Broadway-caliber “hoofer” talents of today to shine. And with MTW’s latest revival specifically, director/choreographer Jon Engstrom has helmed a joyful production worth experiencing, whether it’s your first or hundredth time.
Set in the pre-social media days (!) of the late 20’s, celebrity and image is depicted as an even more heavily-protected (and carefully curated) commodity of the Hollywood studio system. It’s the kind of environment—one ruled by silent movies—that has made huge movie stars out of two attractive marquee actors, Don Lockwood (here played with slick, antiquated charm and era-appropriate vocals by Leigh Wakeford) and the gorgeous, but ridiculously irritating diva Lina Lamont (scene-stealing Rebecca Ann Johnson, who should probably leave some room on her mantle now for an Ovation Award). The fascinated public can't get enough of not only the pair's ultra-romantic silent films, but also their supposed equally amorous off-camera relationship, which we soon discover is all a figment of the studio’s manipulated imaginations in order to further fuel the public’s fandom.
Trying to dodge fans and reporters after the red carpet premiere of the latest anticipated Lockwood-and-Lamont hit, Don ducks out of the Grauman’s Chinese Theater—with an assist from his best friend and former vaudeville partner Cosmo Brown (the wonderful, outstandingly limber Justin Michael Wilcox)—only to have a written-in-the-stars meet-cute with the lovely Kathy Selden (the beautifully talented Natalie MacDonald, who at times resembles the twin-image of Debbie Reynolds in the film), an aspiring actress who doesn’t seem to be fazed at all by the cult of celebrity nor does she appear easily charmed by this Don guy flirting with her (yeah, sure, Kathy). In a tirade against the Hollywood machine, Kathy claims that these silent film superstars of today know nothing about real acting and working your way from the bottom, and that serious work is much more tied to the world of the legit stage (here, here, Kathy!). For his part, Don seems as smitten as ever, despite Kathy’s insults.
Later, Don finally arrives at the after-party thrown at the home of his boss, the studio chief of Monumental Pictures, R.F. Simpson (Jeff Austin) who is deeply troubled by the latest news: Al Jolson has just scored an enormous hit with "The Jazz Singer" a brand new “talking” picture that features perfectly-synced dialogue and music. His immediate solution to this technological advancement? To immediately convert the next Lockwood-and-Lamont picture, The Dueling Cavalier into a “talkie.” Seems like a fine idea—except for the fact that while Don has the regal voice of a thespian, Lina…well, most certainly does not.
Meanwhile, Don is surprised (but delighted) to find Kathy popping out of a “cake” as part of the evening’s party entertainment. Irritated with Don, the feisty Kathy tries to throw a piece of cake at him, only to accidentally hit Lina. Understandably irate, Lina gets Kathy fired, leaving Don feeling guilty enough to later convince Cosmo to try to give Kathy an audition at the studio (she, to Don’s and our delight, accepts the call).
As shooting on the studio’s now sound film finally arrives, director Roscoe Dexter (Steve Owsley) is becoming increasingly frazzled and frustrated—and for good reason. With a voice so shrill that it sounds like a cat being strangled, Lina’s cartoonish voice is simply not suitable for this new cinematic innovation. So how do they fix it? Why, to get Kathy to dub all Lina’s lines, of course! And, heck, while we’re at it… why not turn the horrendous The Dueling Cavalier into The Singing Cavalier—and make it a movie musical vehicle for Don and the increasingly valuable Kathy?
A pleasant throwback musical that's like a nice warm hug mixed in with a goofy, screwball comedy, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN is a genuinely entertaining stage show that displays an enormous grasp of wit and snark, while at the same time, unabashedly revels in its adorably square, old-fashioned sensibilities. And with MTW’s excellent new production—filled with superlative aspects from Michael Anania’s effective sets, Karen St. Pierre’s period-perfect costumes, John Glaudini’s musical direction over the lush sounds of the orchestra, and Engstrom’s own choreography—the show mines that nostalgia to lovingly pay homage to the kinds of musicals of a bygone era… those ones that feel less of a go-to in today’s age of theatrical complexities and innovation.
Funny enough, as old-fashioned musicals go, this one surprisingly involves (or should I say demands) an intriguing theatrical trick to accomplish its signature scene that celebrates the blossoming possibilities of new romance—the very one that its title is hinging on to make good. When that first act closing scene finally happens—seeing Wakeford leap, jump, and twirl with the lightest of ease across the stage underneath a man-made torrential downpour cleverly contained just within Kathy’s neighborhood—it’s a giddy sight to see. Bravo to all for getting this marvelous scene right (and to top it off, MTW repeatedly wanted patrons to know that in the wake of the severity of California’s drought, the water used in this scene is indeed repeatedly recycled back into itself).
With swift, zippy pacing, and cheeky humor that seems to transcend the varying ages of the audiences in attendance, MTW’s effervescent SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN—as delivered by this hard-working, infectiously happy Broadway-caliber ensemble—should definitely continue to enjoy being showered in praises.
Review originally published for OnStage Blog. Follow this reviewer on Twitter: @cre8iveMLQ
Photos © Caught In The Moment Photography/Musical Theatre West.
Final remaining performances of Musical Theatre West's production of SINGIN' IN THE RAIN continue through Sunday, July 26, 2015 and are scheduled Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.Tickets start at $20. There is a $3 service charge per ticket. Prices are subject to change without notice. Group rates are available for 12 or more.
Musical Theatre West performs at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center located at 6200 E. Atherton Street in Long Beach, CA.
For tickets or for more information, please call 562-856-1999 x4 or visit online at www.musical.org