Review: Spencer Liff-Directed "SINGIN' IN THE RAIN" at La Mirada Rekindles That Glorious Feeling

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  • Michael L. Quintos, Associate Los Angeles Critic

When the house lights finally came back on after the entire cast treated the appreciative audience a peppy, rain-soaked reprise of the show's title song as an encore, I turned to my friend beaming and said "I could not stop smiling the whole time!"

It is probably a safe assumption—judging from the thunderous applause of its recent opening night performance—that my happy reaction to McCoy Rigby Entertainment's joyfully buoyant new production of "SINGIN' IN THE RAIN"—now on stage at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts through May 12, 2019—was not a solitary feeling I alone felt after that performance.

For its entire running time, this faithful, almost meticulous scene-by-scene stage recreation of the classic 1952 MGM movie musical that starred Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, and Donald O'Connor never wanes in its steady and generous pace of delight. From its witty script penned by theater titans Betty Comden and Adolph Green to the indelible, ear-candy song selections composed by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, the musical's stage iteration continuously overflows with unbridled jubilance and an affectionate air of nostalgic bliss—not only as a direct recall to its memorable cinematic source material but also as a reverent tribute to the entire genre of old-fashioned movie musicals as a whole.

They certainly don't make ‘em like these anymore.

Surprisingly enough, this unapologetically feel-good show proves just as entertaining for today's modern audiences as the original film did during its initial release almost seven (!) decades ago. Despite depicting a significant, time-specific moment in motion picture history—that era when film studios began scrambling to make the challenging and, at times, awkward transition from silent films to sound-enabled "talkies"—"SINGIN' IN THE RAIN" remains endearingly and hilariously timeless, proving that its scenes of comedy and romance transcends even its age.

No matter what generation you may come from, there is something to enjoy in this wonderful, superb musical.

Directed and choreographed by the Emmy nominated, highly in-demand Spencer Liff—whose recent credits include the Broadway productions of "HEAD OVER HEELS," "FALSETTOS," and the groundbreaking Deaf West Theatre revival of "SPRING AWAKENING"—is a smart and keenly-assembled production that is both respectful of the show's storied past but is also tinged with stylistic choices that feel fresh for modern theatergoers.

Mixing antiquated but charming dialogue and genuine, irony-free romance with spectacular tap-tastic dance-a-thons and broad, accessible comedy, this vibrant stage adaptation of such a beloved, all-singing, all-dancing musical always keeps things light and airy, even in the most serious or dire of scenes. Well, okay, to be fair, nothing really tragic or devastating ever threatens anyone in the story, so it's not difficult for this show to remain upbeat and positive.

The original film obviously has a special place in many people's hearts (including mine), so it's almost a given that the stage iteration religiously adheres to many of the memorable moments in the film or else suffer the ire of many of its fans. The results, of course, are received well, with the production encouraging its cast of talented, enthusiastic triple-threats to revisit some the film's key scenes and plot points with renewed verve and intensified gusto… hence the reason why I couldn't help smiling throughout the entire show.

Just like the film, the stage adaptation is also set in the halcyon days of 1920's Hollywood—where movie studios often relied on the continued bankability of their in-house stable of movie stars under tight, exclusive contracts. That bankability is ensured by an intricate system of careful curation and controlled publicity, from the way their stars conduct themselves during red carpet openings to the off-screen "relationships" manufactured between popular co-stars to keep fans salivating for more.

For the story's fictional studio, Monumental Pictures, the two biggest marquee names in their roster are attractive movie mega stars Don Lockwood (impressive triple-threat Michael Starr) and Lina Lamont (scene-stealing Sara King), a duo that has consistently been a huge box office draw for the studio, thanks to their popular silent films filled with grand adventures and over-emoted romance, which makes the studio's head honcho R. F. Simpson (Peter van Norden) very, very happy.

On screen, fans can't get enough of their exaggerated romantic chemistry, which fans conclude must be a by-product of their equally steamy off-screen relationship. What the public doesn't know is that their supposed affair away from the cameras has been purposely cooked up by the studio's publicity department to further fuel their fans' appetite for the pair. For her part, the dim and catty Lina assumes the faux relationship to be true as well, even though in reality Don can't stand her at all. But everyone, including Don, complies with the ruse because, at the end of the day, everyone gets all the more richer and more famous for it.

Alas, although his career has been mostly gained from his success in silent films, Don is, deep down, a good, ol' fashioned "hoofer" with a background in vaudeville and musical theater that he once shared with his funny, long-time best friend Cosmo Brown (dancing phenom Brandon Burks). Will he ever get to use his long-dormant talents ever again?

Of course! This is a musical after all.

The timing couldn't have been better. As it turns out, Hollywood is becoming increasingly obsessed with the latest innovation: talking pictures. Former vaudevillian performer Al Jolson has just scored an enormous hit with "The Jazz Singer," the first commercially-released "talking" picture that features perfectly-synced dialogue and music (but, unfortunately, still with lots of cringe-worthy blackface). Studio heads like R.F. Simpson are understandably worried since they've made their fortunes solely with silent pictures and their silent stars.

Speaking of silent stars… Lina, despite her star power and talent (?) for acting, is quite a handful once the cameras stop rolling. A running gag in both the film and this stage adaptation has everyone—from studio handlers to Don himself—working rigorously hard to keep Lina—and her supposedly uninformed thoughts and piercingly shreaky voice—from ever coming in contact with the press or the public (although you now have to wonder whether in today's #metoo environment if this sort of behavior remains appropriate or even fair).

Don, understandably, gets tired of constantly having to pretend he's in love with Lina, which he once again had to fib about during the latest Hollywood red carpet premiere screening of the new Lockwood and Lamont hit. In order to avoid having to deal with more fans and reporters after the screening, Cosmo helps his BFF escape the Grauman's Chinese Theater undetected. But fate, naturally, had other plans.

While dodging foot traffic (!) on L.A. side streets, Don has a chance meet-cute on a random park bench with the lovely Kathy Selden (the adorable Kimberly Immanuel), an aspiring actress who thinks movie stars are basically pampered hacks who don't hold a candle to the more talented people who act and do serious work on the stage. Don obviously disagrees, but can't help but still be smitten despite her passionate opinions. All the while Kathy doesn't seem to be fazed at all by the "incognito" celebrity now trying to flirt with her suuuper hard—perhaps because she's running late for a gig and she just doesn't have the time to deal with this stranger's embarrassingly over-the-top, aggressive advances.

Soon Don is a late arrival to the premiere after-party thrown at R.F. Simpson's house, where the super extra Lina, as usual, is all up in his business, asking where he'd been. To his delightful surprise, Don discovers Kathy amongst a troupe of dancers hired to be the evening's entertainment. Now fuming and more irritated with Don, the angry Kathy attempts to slam a piece of cake at him, only to accidentally (and humorously) hit Lina's face instead.

Lina is, of course, mad as hell. We later learn that Lina's power and influence gets Kathy fired from her job, leaving Don feeling guilty enough to later convince his pal Cosmo to arrange for Kathy to get an audition at the studio (she accepts, of course). Don, for his part, finally expresses his true hatred for Lina while filming their latest silent epic "The Dueling Cavalier."

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But soon more complications arise. With every major studio in town rushing to release the next "Jazz Singer," Simpson orders every Monumental Pictures film shut down for a few weeks while he reassesses their next steps. The brilliant quick solution to take advantage of this technological advancement? Well, why not 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 debonair voice of a trained thespian, Lina…well, most certainly does not. But press on they do.

As shooting on the studio's now sound-enabled film finally resumes, director Roscoe Dexter (a very funny Jamie Torcellini) is becoming increasingly frazzled and frustrated with the new methods—and for good reason. First the actors are having to adjust to the new tech with mixed results. And second, with a voice so shrill that it sounds like multiple cats are being strangled, Lina's cartoonishly unsuitable voice is simply just not a fit for this new world of filmmaking. Just like the in the classic film, this stage adaptation recreates these incredibly funny moments that had the entire audience in stitches.

So how do they repair this tragedy of a film production? Well… why not get Kathy—just recently signed to a multi-picture contract after giving a superb performance at the audition Don secretly arranged for her—to dub all of Lina's lines without her knowing! And, dang, while we're already making it into a sound picture… why not turn the badly-testing "The Dueling Cavalier" into a full on movie musical, too?

The bonus? Don and Kathy get to work side-by-side—which may result in Kathy finally falling for Don!

An engaging new production of an enduring classic, La Mirada's smile-inducing new production of "SINGIN' IN THE RAIN" combines the nostalgic goodness of its timelessly giddy source material with a fresh new energy provided by its infectiously enthusiastic cast, led by its terrific leads Starr, Immanuel, Burks and King—all of whom are blessed with incredible voices and dancing abilities that are on full display.

Emmy-nominated Liff's staging (with assists from associate director Cynthia Ferrer, who starred as Kathy in the first national tour of this very musical, and associate choreographer Clarice Ordaz) keeps a comfortable pace reminiscent of the original, hitting the show's many memorable highlights with ample time to be savored, while his top-notch, Broadway-ready choreography gives new explosiveness to a property loaded with decades' worth of preconceived expectations. From the spectacular frenetic tapping in "Moses Supposes" that was so fantastic that it almost stopped the show, to the mesmerizing "Broadway Melody" suite that dazzles with the future of dance through the reverential lens of the past.

What's truly remarkable about this production is that although it is quite a faithful adaptation—where lines of dialogue are quote-worthy and certain iconic visual cues are recalled—I still found myself laughing at every single joke and funny gag I knew was coming, as if it was the first time I was hearing any of it. For me, "SINGIN' IN THE RAIN" as a stage show feels like a rebirth, yet still feels every bit as I remember it. While one or two sequences didn't quite live up to the original, much of this production is extraordinary.

The entire sequence that involved filming with sound for the first time is still a laugh riot—and I am so happy much of it remains in the stage adaptation. I still swoon during the Don's romantic overtures in "You Were Meant For Me" (although part of me wishes the scene was bathed in the kind of saturated other-worldly hues that the film displayed during the number). I still smile and cheer for that infamous couch-tip during the end of "Good Morning." And, yes, I still get a little teary-eyed when Don and Kathy share a final duet that declares not only his public admiration for Kathy's talents but also their deep love for one another.

Naturally, you can't talk about "SINGIN' IN THE RAIN" without mentioning its signature scene featuring the title song, in which Don—as he does in the movie—expresses his giddy, unabashed feelings of love by leaping, gliding, spinning, and, yes, stomping during that rarest of occurrences in Southern California: a torrential downpour. With his familiar fedora, yellow raincoat and barely-used umbrella, Don—winningly played by Starr, who continues to live up to his appropriate last name with every subsequent role he takes on—lets go and surrenders to "that glorious feeling" of unstoppable happiness, that we can't help but feel just as giddy as he does, except less damp in our seats. It's a bit of a wow, stage magic moment that is still impressive to see even if it's simply just some sprinklers turned on wetting the self-contained stage set below.

Musically, the combined efforts of the show's impressive-sounding orchestra under the direction of Keith Harrison with the full voices of the entire company, is pure ear candy (kudos to sound designer Julie Ferrin for providing a balanced sound in the theater). Elsewhere, costume designer Shon LeBlanc's vintage frocks and outfits paired with EB Bohks' Hair, Wig, and Makeup design draped the cast in perfect period looks of the Flapper era.

Though mostly adequate in its needed goal of placing any given moment into an environment dictated by the narrative, some of David Murakami's projection backdrops looked a bit dark and subdued in a few instances (particularly in scenes inside a bare sound stage). While certainly not a huge dealbreaker, they do at times present a contrast to the joyfulness happening on stage. Luckily Steven Young's lighting design brightens everything up in those few instances to compensate, while in other scenes, the projections are sufficiently popping.

This is perhaps why the anticipated scene that sees Don revel in his rain-soaked giddiness is especially uplifting because rather than doing his dance in front of flat surroundings with projected backdrops, the whole thing occurs on a self-contained three-dimensional street set designed by John Iacovelli, complete with store fronts, apartment stoops, and, yes, lamp posts begging for that iconic signature pose. The overwhelming nostalgia combined with the theatrical magic presented here is alone worth seeing the show.

Aside from the excellent leads, other standouts in the cast worth noting include Bruce Merkle, who provides a lovely high tenor solo in "Beautiful Girl," and Adam Lendermon as the nerdy diction coach who surprises with hidden hoofer talents. But I can't stress enough how much I adore King's exquisite comedic chops ("And I caaaaan't stand ‘im!" is wonderful coming from her!) and how Torcellini's take on Director Roscoe is just hilarious perfection.

A cheery, sometimes goofy, sometimes endearing, but wholly satisfying revival filled with outstanding performances and presented with an overall entertaining gusto, La Mirada's "SINGIN' IN THE RAIN" is a laudable triumph of nostalgia and renewed excitement for those good, old-fashioned musicals. Go ahead… fall in love with that glorious feeling all over again.

Follow this reviewer on Twitter @cre8iveMLQ.

Photos by Austin Bauman courtesy of La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts.

McCoy Rigby Entertainment and La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts presents "SINGIN' IN THE RAIN"

Based on the original Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film by special arrangement with Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures, Inc. Written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, with additional lyrics by Edward Heyman, Gus Khan, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and additional music by Roger Edens. Musical Direction by Keith Harrison. Associate Directed by Cynthia Ferrer. Directed and Choreographed by Spencer Liff.

The cast of "SINGIN' IN THE RAIN" features Michael Starr, Kimberly Immanuel, Brandon Burks, Sara King, Jamie Torcellini, Peter Van Norden, Kelley Dorney, and Candace J. Washington. The Ensemble features Ethan Daniel Corbett, Justin Charles Cowden, Maggie Darago, Chaz Feuerstine, Veronica Gutierrez, Grant Hodges, Adam Lendermon, Bruce Merkle, Tayler Mettra, Shanon Mari Mills, Theresa Murray, Cheyenne Omani, Clarice Ordaz, Samuel Shea, DJ Smith, Rodrigo Varandas, and Breanne Wilson.

"SINGIN' IN THE RAIN" features Scenic Design by John Iacovelli; Lighting Design by Steven Young; Sound Design by Julie Ferrin; Projection Design by David Murakami; Costume Design by Shon LeBlanc; Hair/Wig/Makeup Design by EB Bohks; Properties Design by Kevin Williams. The Casting Director is Julia Flores and the Production Stage Manager is Jill Gold.

Performances of "SINGIN' IN THE RAIN" at The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts continue through Sunday, May 12, 2019. The theater is located at 14900 La Mirada Boulevard in the city of La Mirada. Parking is Free. For tickets, visit www.LaMiradaTheatre.com or call (562) 944-9801 or (714) 994-6310.