Last summer’s Chichester Festival Theatre pick-me-up has duly stormed the Palace Theatre just as two new movies about the early days of cinema – Hugo and The Artist – look set to feature in the Oscar awards ceremony.
There’s a hall of mirrors as well as pure nostalgia involved in this look back to an early period of creative transition; The Artist is obviously derived from Singin' in the Rain in its story of a leading man failing to cut the mustard when the talkies take over.
Any good stage version of Stanley Donen’s 1952 classic starring Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor, restores the improvisatory glee of performance on celluloid; the Agnes de Mille-style ballet in the middle of “Broadway Melody” is 1950s theatre, not 1927 cinema: at the Palace, Ebony Molina is every bit as jazzy and bewitching as was Cyd Charisse in the film.
Jonathan Church’s production starts a little shakily with a too busy prologue during the overture (the band are high above the stage at the back), and the arrival of guests, including Charlie Chaplin twirling his stick and moustache, at a movie premiere down the centre aisle only reinforces a lack of focus.
But once Adam Cooper and Daniel Crossley hit their stride in their vaudeville routine, the evening takes off. Cooper’s line, agility and charm carry the show, while Crossley is a delightful foil, paying due homage to O’Connor by crashing through the wall (not dancing up it) in “Make ’em Laugh” and ceding victory to his forebear.
Scarlett Strallen is a sweetly accurate and demure Debbie Reynolds clone, singing beautifully, and the statuesque Katherine Kingsley drives you suitably mad as Lina Lamont, proving that you have to be able to play the trumpet really well, as it were, in order to play it badly.
I’m still not convinced, though, by her second act song, “What’s Wrong With Me?” that was added for Jude Kelly’s West Yorkshire Playhouse revival (which played at the National in 2000); on that occasion, it was sung straight, allowing Lina a rather touching fantasy moment in the sun of our approval. Here, Kingsley just buries it alive.
The rain at the end of each act is tremendous, and anyone in the most expensive seats in the front few rows gets a marvellous soaking. But the highlight of Simon Higlett’s superb design and Tim Mitchell’s lighting is the irresistible explosion of pastel suits, flashing legs and Manhattan skyline in “Broadway Melody.”
Not too many liberties are taken with Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s screenplay, and each song of Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed is greeted with an exhalation of pleasure in the audience.
Andrew Wright’s choreography is sharp, funny and detailed, especially good at mobilising fierce phalanxes of chorines, and there are notably good support performances from Michael Brandon as the fickle studio chief and Peter Forbes as the flustered director Roscoe Dexter.