The word hokum springs to mind, and quite correctly, with Singin' in the Rain - but what joyous hokum!
The fictitious Don Lockwood-Lina Lamont screen partnership has made silent idols of them both but, with the advent of talkies, it becomes immediately clear that the
corncrake tones of the dishy blonde are not going to survive the transition.
Cue Kathy Selden, a touch dowdy by Hollywood standards perhaps, but with the
voice of an angel and, soon enough, the heart of Don Lockwood.
medium-term solution is clear - a new on-screen partnership of Lockwood and
Selden . The immediate problem is how to rescue the current
Lockwood-Lamont production. Answer: get Miss Selden to dub Miss Lamont's
role. Fly-in-ointment: Miss Lamont who is distinctly underwhelmed. Ending:
deliriously happy for all (except Miss Lamont).
Lockwood (played in this re-staging of Jude Kelly's 1999 production by
Darren Bennett, pictured) is the Gene Kelly role in which he acquits himself
perfectly amiably, though there is a suggestion that he's a slightly
picaresque hero to whom events occur without his entirely willing them. More
dominant is Richard Brightiff in the Donald O'Connor role (but looking more
like a Danny Kaye/Russ Tamblyn cross) of the ubiquitous musical director and
assiduous Pandarus-figure for whom 'dynamo' barely begins to do justice.
As for the ladies, Jacqui Rae's Lamont squawks and writhes comically, yet remains in touch with humanity sufficiently to claim sympathy in her "What's wrong with me?" number and to chill as a ruthless businesswoman when threatened. And as
Kathy Selden, Cheryl McAvoy manages to convey a degree of steeliness to
stand as warning to anyone who presumes too much upon her overarching
The staging, however, poses problems. A triple-screen set makes sense in
a multiple-location show, but it's used with variable imagination -
excellent for the apartment block in the title splash scene and for the
showing of studio rushes, but all too often filled with inane graphics. And, though the
the sound achieves perfect clarity by wiring all the principals for dialogue
as well as song, the dual effects is that they wander the stage with visible
aerials like refugees from Star Trek and that all sound emanates slightly
brittly from upstage-centre speakers.
Ultimately, what wins through is not the somewhat feeble book, the rather
limp characters, nor even the very respectable collection of songs from
Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, but the stunning dance routines,
choreographed by Stephen Mear and performed with dazzling energy, total
commitment and apparent enjoyment by a team which has obviously been drilled
until it hurt. Whatever else it may be, Singin' is a hoofin' good show.
Note: The following review dates from June 2000 and the production's first run at the National's Olivier Theatre.
It can and should be legitimately questioned why the National Theatre is doing Singin in the Rain at all - it blatantly belongs in the commercial sector, where in fact the screen-to-stage premiere of it was first given at the London Palladium in the early eighties starring Mr Teeth-and-Smiles himself, Tommy Steele. But the bigger question now is how they have managed to give house room to such an ineptly conceived and ham-fisted production of it, and one moreover that is now swallowing up not just one subsidised budget but two - the National's and that of the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, who originated it as their panto replacement last Christmas.
Perhaps, seen in that spirit of seasonal cheer, it might have just passed muster; but now, exposed on the vast stage of the Olivier, its scenic paucity, all-round low voltage performances, poor direction and especially clumsy adaptation are all the more noticeable.
The viability of translating hit screen musicals to the stage - from such recent fiascos as Saturday Night Fever in London and Footloose on Broadway to older ones like High Society (which failed in two separate versions on both sides of the Atlantic) - has always been a vexed one, but the question with a long acknowledged masterpiece of the cinematic genre as Singin in the Rain is begged even more fiercely: Why try to improve on perfection anyway?
The stage adds nothing at all to the experience, except (for the front few rows of the audience) the prospect of actually getting wet during the heavy downpours of rain that end the first Act (for the title song) and the curtain call reprise of it that ends the second. In between the frankly childish moments of delight that this undoubtedly offers, the experience is worse than even watching a very poor, scratched and grainy print - the outline of the original is visible, but all the wonderful detail is gone.
Jude Kelly's production - which relies heavily on movie projections onto three screens that dominate the stage of cutsey cartoons and, occasionally, live action - underlines everything three times and in red ink where a little taste and discretion might have gone further. You only need a song like 'Moses Supposes' (His Toeses Are Roses), and the projections are giving the audience line-drawings of toes and roses, and just in case you don't recognise them, also literally spells it out, too.
There is nothing, in any case, that is live or theatrical to experience in the piece anyway. Its plot is born quintessentially of the movies, and specifically, of the advent of the talkies, and the repercussions this has for two previously silent stars, Lockwood and Lamont, who now need to reveal their voices. No problem for Paul Robinson's all-singing, all-dancing, all-low budget Gene Kelly facsimile as Don Lockwood: he delivers the goods, if not the charisma, required. Rebecca Thornhill playing the vocally challenged Lina Lamont, on the other hand, is wearying and unfunny while Zoe Hart, as Kathy Selden, Lina's rival for the attentions of Lockwood, is bland and harmless, if not entirely charmless.
Note: This review dates from the production's original run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
The fact that I'm sitting at the keyboard whistling the main tune and feel inclined to start running up the walls and jumping over the furniture probably tells you all you need to know. Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown's songs and a performance that builds to a rousing crescendo have left me feeling entertained.
Immediate afterthoughts aside, director Jude Kelly's latest Leed's fandango is not without flaws. The staging, with its use of video footage projected onto three large screens, will surprise those expecting a grand set. This high tech approach is a disjointed affair - some of the on-screen work is a dreadfully distracting mess that looks like a child has run amok on an Apple Mac. But at other times, when the creative potential is exploited for cartoon-style backdrops, it works incredibly well and is at its most effective when used in a more conventional manner, playing host to some wonderful parodies of silent films and early talkies.
Despite the big tunes, the show is on a low-key slow burn for much of the first act, with stilted audience response. Then, just as the gathered press begin to jot down that 'Make 'Em Laugh' is surely being performed ironically, the show springs to life with 'Moses Supposes' and barely lets up - the audience responding accordingly.
What everyone wants to see is how the title routine, with a promised show-stopping amount of real wet stuff, is performed. Stephen Mear's choreography, as with the routines for all the show's numbers, is very much a homage to Gene Kelly and the inescapable exuberance of the 50's film. Paul Robinson not only bears an uncanny resemblance to Kelly but also demonstrates a high level of dance ability as Don Lockwood. Mario Borza's water works have been something of a regular ingredient at the Playhouse over the past months and here, used for just the one number and to close the show, they are nothing less than amazing.
Other high points are a fine orchestra (musical direction by Jonathan Gill), Rebecca Thornhill's highly comic Lina Lamont, Mark Channon's versatility as Cosmo, Zoe Hart's pleasantly smooth vocals as Kathy, Adrian McLaughlin's portrayal as studio boss R F and a cast that move around with all the panache and style required to steal the show back from gadgets and gimmicks - their collective talents demonstrated best during 'Broadway Melody' and the closing audience soaking reprise.
There's no doubt, even with the questionable designs, that this show respects the hey day of 1950s cinema musicals and does a brave job of turning celluloid into a buoyant piece of theatre.