Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 2007
Only recently has there been a trend to convert movie musicals into theatrical vehicles, usually with the view of reproducing, live on stage, the moments we all treasure on celluloid. Frankly, this rarely works well. This summer the Mac-Haydn has presented three movie-to-stage musicals in a row – Thoroughly Modern Millie, Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, and now Singin’ in the Rain.
With ...Millie the new creative team wisely decided to write a stage musical, rather than a film-come-to-life, and the results are very pleasing. White Christmas was a film about stage performers and its sentimental tugs at the heartstrings remained just as effective on a smaller scale, with the notable exception of a pitifully small corps of soldiers to sing We’ll Follow the Old Man at the end.
But Singin’ in the Rain is a movie about making movies. It is presented in a very cinematic style with big movie production numbers inserted at random throughout. The time is the mid-1920’s as talking films were just beginning to replace silents, a time when plot was not considered a necessary element to successful entertainment. “Singin’ in the Rain” follows that concept, with plot playing only the tiniest possible role in the whole proceeding. Why does Donald O’Connor sing Make ‘em Laugh (to make you laugh?) or Gene Kelly romp through the puddles in the title number? Have you ever really stopped to think about the title number? It basically says, over and over and over, that this guy is singing (and dancing) in the rain. It doesn’t say why – because there is no reason. It is raining, and he is singing and dancing. Gripping theatre, say what?
Live on stage, without Gene Kelly or Donald O’Connor or Debbie Reynolds, Singin’ in the Rain is just a big, old-fashioned plotless puddle. Director John Saunders gamely throws lots of talent and resources into the pool, including the Mac’s snazzy new rain-making-machine, but just ends up with a soggy mess.
The two best things in this production are Emily Thompson’s dumb-like-a-fox portrayal of the silent screen siren (who sounds more like an ambulance siren) Lina Lamont, and Andrew Chartier’s Gene-Kelly-channeling rendition of the title song, complete with real rain. The two worst things are Colin Pritchard’s not-nearly-funny-enough turn as Cosmo Brown (the Donald O’Connor role) and Mary-Elizabeth Milton’s inexplicable Zelda Zanders.
As in White Christmas, the two leading men here are supposed to be Big Stars, albeit fictional ones, and on screen both pairs were played by true celebrities. And once again here we have two very young unknowns – this time Chartier and Pritchard – prancing around pretending to be famous. They’re not. And even though they are both very proficient dancers, neither of them is a stand-out. It is only when the rain starts falling and Chartier opens his umbrella (yes, the folks in the front rows get plastic tarps, just in case) that anything resembling the magic of the movie is captured. Alas, five minutes of magic doesn’t make up for two-and-a-half hours of plotless twaddle.
And like last time, where the Shook sisters far out-shone the actors portraying their supposed mentors, here Kelly L. Shook holds the stage alone against two different Who-The-Heck-Are-Theys. As always, she sings and dances divinely, but with no real plot or character, that’s all she gets to do.
The best bits go to the always reliable Mac-Haydn season players. Al Pagano, Thom Caska, and David Purdy play executive types at Monumental Studios and are all great fun to watch. It was a treat to get to see Pagano as his handsome self, not mired down in make-up, wigs, and foreign accents. Jamison Foreman and Peter Stoffan show off some fancy footwork as young Don and Cosmo in Fit as a Fiddle. It was fun to see Austin Riley Green’s skills with the lariat, and darned if Richard Gatta doesn’t do a spot-on Charlie Chaplin impression!
Karla Shook is relegated here to a bit part as a hairdresser and a couple of turns in the chorus. Remember in A Chorus Line when Zach tells Cassie that she can never blend back in to the chorus since she’s become a star? I think it is a mark of Karla’s versatility and talent that she IS able to be either the star (and a good one too) or a toothsome chorine with equal ease and grace.
I want to be very clear that it is the show itself that is the problem, not anything anyone at the Mac-Haydn has done with. Saunders has done a solid job directing a hard working cast, all of whom are quite well suited to their roles with the exception of Pritchard. Jimm Halliday has once again designed piles of spiffy costumes (but what was with those lavender slacks on Pritchard in the second act??), and Kevin Gleason has designed a really interesting tromp l’oeil set, complete with two little movie screens that are put to good use.
Justin Boccitto has worked hard to recreate the Kelly’s choreography for the film and is remarkably successful considering that Kelly had vast sound stages on which to work and could use the camera to focus the audience’s point of view closely, while Boccitto has a tiny space and must stage everything to be viewed from all angles as the Mac is a theatre-in-the-round.
The beloved 1952 MGM film was conceived by producer Arthur Freed as a profitable way to recycle popular songs written by Nacio Herb Brown for movies made in the 1920’s and 1930’s. So the score was just as sentimentally familiar to the initial audience as it is to us today. And there are some really nice songs in the show, including You Are My Lucky Star and You Were Meant for Me. Hearing them performed by the strong singers at the Mac-Haydn is definitely one of the best parts of the proceedings.
I am assuming that the Mac-Haydn is using the 1985 Broadway version of this show, which was much less popular than the original 1983 London version, directed by and starring Tommy Steele, from which it differed significantly. The song list adheres much more closely to the one used on Broadway, so this is probably what has come to be the standard licensed version over the course of the past few decades.
If you are a huge, huge, HUGE fan of the 1952 film and have always been dying to see it live on stage, this is your big chance. If not, I would continue to enjoy the film as a film and save your trip to the Mac-Haydn for their final show, The Music Man, a 100% true dyed-in-the-wool all-American Broadway musical if there was one. I can hear those 76 trombones already...
Singin' in the Rain runs through August 19 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Route 203 just north of the center of Chatham, NY. The show runs two and a half hours with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-392-9292.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007