Screenplay and adaptation by Betty Comden and Adolph Green
Songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed
Directed by: Jonathan Church
Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre
Date: Wednesday 27th July 2011
[with some corrections from seeing it again on 8/9/11]
This is a fantastic production, so good that it’s hard to believe that Singin’ In The Rain wasn’t a stage musical from the off. The set was great, the performances brilliant, and the staging had some lovely touches of the film about it without being a slavish reproduction. I don’t think I’ve seen the main house so packed for a long time, and despite the inevitable soaking for the front rows (we were in Row C and not out of range!) it was great fun. I’m not a huge fan of musicals per se, so I wouldn’t give it top marks, but I can understand why the musical aficianados were standing and cheering at the end. A great night out.
The set was both elaborate and simple. At the back of the stage there was a central proscenium arch frame with lots of lighting built in. This could act as the arch of a theatre or a general doorway, and there were sliding door panels or a curtain which changed the location instantly and effectively. Above this was the orchestra, largely obscured by the set but just visible through the gaps. Around the archway and to the sides were general building sections, which could look like a townscape or a film studio according to how the stage was dressed, and to the extreme sides, above the side seating, there were cut outs of hills, and on the left hand side the Hollywoodland sign. Other signs lit up on either side from time to time, but these were mostly out of my eye line, and I wasn’t aware of them so much.
Then there was the floor of the stage to consider. A raised pavement ran all the way round the outside of the stage, and this represented the Hollywood Walk of Fame outside the Grauman theatres, Chinese and Egyptian, both of which feature in the musical. The handprints I saw included Lina Lamont and Don Lockwood, the fictional stars of the musical, and also Charlie Chaplin (cameo appearance), Douglas Fairbanks (whose films provided research material for the creative team), and Tom somebody and his horse (one hand print, one hoof print) [8/9/11 – Tom Mix and Tony, the Wonder Horse]. But you had to go right up to the stage to see them. There were also light panels built in which were used during the initial Singin’ In The Rain sequence.
Inside this raised pavement was a boarded section which contained the water during the rainstorms. Just before each downpour, you could see water starting to seep up from underneath, and we realised that the tank below had to be full during the rainstorm or the water would all drain away instead of bouncing off the floor. This led to Cosmo Brown getting the back of his waistcoat wet when he lay on the ground shortly before the big number. The cleanup operation during the interval was pretty slick, and you’d hardly have known there had been so much water everywhere when they’d finished.
In fact, the whole production was very slick when it came to getting people and furniture on and off the stage for each scene. I found I rarely noticed the arrival and departure of even quite big pieces of furniture, such as desks and lampposts, and although it took a little longer setting up the filming set, that worked well as it would need to be set up anyway in the context of that scene.
One final thing to mention was the lovely airplane which flew across the auditorium at the start, trailing the banner advertising the new Lockwood and Lamont movie whose premier opens the piece. This was very cute, and also great fun. The costumes were all suitably glamorous, and fitted perfectly, both in terms of the cast and the time and place.
The overture had been choreographed, with the dancers showing us a film studio at work, which was a good start. Then we were into the real opening sequence, with Dora Bailey, swathed in a voluminous fur coat which must be hell in the heat [8/9/11 the coat only had a fur collar – not so bad], introducing the characters to us as they walked down the red carpet to the premier of The Royal Rascal. It was clear immediately that Lina Lamont was being kept well away from the microphone, and this helped to built up suspense for the first time we hear her speak. The first number, Fit As A Fiddle, was OK, and then we got a chance to see the two stars in action. The filmed bit of The Royal Rascal was wonderfully funny, and they got the style just right.
After the showing, the principals head off to the studio boss’s party. Lina’s first grating lines were delivered really well, or really badly if you prefer, and she’s clearly not the sharpest knife in the cutlery drawer either. She actually believes the studio’s publicity that she and Don are an item, and can’t grasp that he’s not keen on her at all.
With Don choosing to walk instead of taking the car, we move into Hollywood Boulevard, and his first meeting with Kathy Selden. They played this very well, with her being dismissive of his fame and talent while showing glimpses of being a fan, and him being smoothly arrogant and humble at the same time. We also get our first sight of the policeman at this point. The musical number, You Stepped Out Of A Dream, was pleasant enough, if a little bland, but then Don gets mobbed by the chorus of passers-by and escapes with a few tears to his jacket.
When Don finally turns up to the party, R F Simpson, the studio boss, presents him with a big surprise – a tower of champagne. Actually, it’s a dummy tower, which opens up to reveal a dancer, who’s then joined by a whole troupe to perform All I Do, which they did very well. The only thing is, the lead dancer is none other than Kathy Selden who was so snobby to Don earlier, claiming she was a ‘proper’ stage actress. This was a brilliant performance by Scarlett Strallen, as she not only danced and sang really well, but also included expressions of total embarrassment and outright anger amongst the dazzling smiles the piece required. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Nor could Don, of course, and he grabbed her at the end of the number to stop her disappearing. When Lina walks in on their conversation a short while later, she’s just in time to get the perfect pie in the face from Kathy, who intended it for Don, but he ducked just in time. Lina’s attempt at a dignified exit was ruined by her foul-mouthed exit line, finishing with the word ‘ass’. [8/9/11 ‘Dignity my ass’]Very funny.
Kathy runs off, naturally, and when we next see Don it’s a couple of days later at the studio [8/9/11 three weeks, actually]. He’s unhappy. He hasn’t been able to find Kathy anywhere, and Lina made sure she was fired from her job. To top it all off, Don took her criticism to heart, and he’s convinced he’s no good as an actor. Asking Cosmo for advice is a great lead into the wonderful Make ‘Em Laugh. It’s hard for anyone to follow the film version of this song, but Daniel Crossley did a pretty good job. He’s an excellent dancer, with good comic timing, but he has to perform this show time after time and can’t be hospitalizing himself after each performance, so inevitably it’s lower key than the film. Even so, they did a good job with the various ‘accidents’, and their homage to the wall sequence at the end was just brilliant. Two stage hands brought on a section of wall and held it mid-stage. Twice Cosmo ran towards it as if….. and then backed off. For the final attempt, at the very end, he completed the run up and then carried right on through the flimsy paper wall. It was a great way to end the song without doing too much damage.
The next scene shows us the filming of the next Lockwood and Lamont blockbuster, The Duelling Cavalier. A strip of grass, a bench, some flowers, and voila, we’re back in 18th century France. Such is the magic of film (and stage). The magic doesn’t extend to the dialogue though, as this is still a silent movie, so Don and Lina can indulge their bitchiness to their heart’s content while pretending to be rapturously in love with each other.
It’s a very funny scene, but things are changing in Hollywoodland. [8/9/11 During the post-premier party,] R F Simpson showed his people the shape of things to come with a short movie which actually includes spoken words! They mostly tied up with the presenter’s lips, but there was a bit of ‘drift’ which was funny, and reminded us of how things were in the very early days. There are lots of people who think the new technology is just a fad and for now, The Duelling Cavalier stays silent. But R F does start using the new technology, as the next scene shows.
Monumental Pictures is shooting a scene reminiscent of Flying Down To Rio, with lovely ladies perched on the wings of a plane, singing and dancing along with the pilot to the song Beautiful Girls. There’s lots of pink, soft mist (it smelled dreadful tonight), and plenty of dancing. It’s a lovely scene, with Kathy Selden well to the fore. Her talent has been spotted, and when R F turns up he’s asked to hear her sing, which leads us into You Are My Lucky Star. He likes her, and despite the pie-throwing incident, hires her on the spot, as long as she stays out of Lina’s way. Don had turned up during her audition, and now they get together for the love duet You Were Meant For Me; I think this is where Kathy is up a ladder for the first part with Don using the sound stage to create a romantic effect as he sings to her. Then they dance for a bit – it wasn’t the most memorable scene for me.
It turns out The Jazz Singer is a hit, and now R F decides to change to talkies, so his stars have to take elocution lessons to ensure they can deliver the lines correctly. Don is working with a diction coach when Cosmo turns up and starts turning the tongue-twisters into song – Moses Supposes. The dancing was really good here, with David Lucas, who’d played the pilot earlier, matching the other two throughout.
We also see (and hear!) Lina’s attempts to say her lines in a more refined accent – no luck, I’m afraid. So when the actual filming gets underway, it’s probably a blessing when things go wrong. This was a very funny section, and Katherine Kingsley’s performance as Lina was brilliant. To reproduce the effect of the sound cutting out when she moved her head away from the microphone, she had to deliver parts of her dialogue out loud and then mime the rest, and she did this to perfection. There were several takes, and the problems were many and varied. The microphone had to be moved several times, her heartbeat came through loud and clear – nice to know she has one – and finally R F himself trips over the microphone cable and yanks it out, complaining that it’s in the way!
When the sneak preview is underway, we see the stars watching from chairs in the middle of the stage, facing forward so we can see their reactions, and there are other audience members to one side. The film itself is shown on the screen behind them, and it’s as dire as we would expect from the filming that we’ve seen. The public start walking out before the end, making their views known, and apart from Lina, everyone knows it’s a big fat turkey. Lina has been chomping away on her popcorn, happy as a lark at her magnificent performance, but once she’s gone, Cosmo, Kathy and Don have a wander along the Boulevard, wondering what they can do to make the film work.
I forget what triggered it, but Cosmo is the one who comes up with the idea to use Kathy’s voice to replace Lina’s. He demonstrates this by having Kathy stand behind him talking or singing while he mimes, and when Don catches on, they soon have the plan in place – they’ll redo the film as a musical, and with Kathy dubbing Lina’s voice they stand a chance of producing a halfway decent movie. This takes us into the well known song Good Morning, which they staged really well, finishing up with a nod to the film version when they clamber over the bench and lie down on the other side. This leads Don and Kathy to get close again, and when Cosmo realises he’s a third wheel on their bicycle he slopes off, leaving Don to walk Kathy home. The storm clouds are gathering, however, and the water is already seeping up through the floor, so once Kathy’s gone, we can start to enjoy one of the most famous scenes in musical history.
This was so well done that I found I could almost forget the Morecambe and Wise version. When the rain came down, it came down heavy, and in no time at all there’s quite a lake in the middle of the stage. Apart from the occasional person running across the stage to get out of the rain, and the policeman, of course, Don has the stage to himself, and he splashes away to his heart’s content, soaking many in the front rows on the way. I didn’t mind the water myself – well, we weren’t in the front row, so we were hardly touched – but if I have one quibble it’s that Adam Cooper spent so much time splashing the audience that we didn’t get to enjoy as much of his dancing talent as I would have liked. This is an opportunity for the leading man to show off his skills, and it would have been nice to have had more of that, but he was so focused on wetting us that I felt the scene became all about that instead of the dancing. Mind you, it was good fun, so it’s a fairly minor complaint. There was nice touch at the end with Don putting his hat full of water on the policeman’s head and then realising what he’d done – oops!
With the place dripping wet, the interval had to be taken after this number – no surprise there – and then the restart quickly takes us into R F’s office where Cosmo finally persuades him to try their plan to rescue the movie from turkeydom. We see Kathy dubbing Lina’s part for both song and speech, and then there’s a scene in Lina’s dressing room, where we see her being told about Kathy’s presence on set and then hear her croak her way through What’s Wrong With Me?, which concludes with her determined ‘nothing’. So much for Lina’s softer side.
As they’r reworking the film, RF decides he wants a big dance number in the show. After some thought, Cosmo comes up with the idea of merging 18th century France with modern-day New York, via a dancing hopeful who gets hit on the head and wakes up as a French aristocrat – entirely plausible! As he starts to demonstrate his idea to R F, Don steps into Cosmo’s place, and then he and the company perform the Broadway Melody section, including an extended dance section featuring Ebony Molina. This was well done, and I do like this style of dance. At the end of this, Cosmo steps back into Don’s place, and R F gives the go-ahead.
With the film remade, the premier gets a wonderful reception, and Lina is determined to claim the limelight. She insists that Kathy will do her voice from now on instead of having a career of her own, which threatens to ruin everything, but Cosmo has a sneaky plan. With Lina out front unable to carry a tune, the audience are starting to get restless, but then Kathy’s singing kicks in and all is well. Then Cosmo raises the curtain behind Lina so that the audience can see who’s really doing it, and the fraud is exposed. Happiness all round, except for Lina, of course. There’s a rousing chorus of You Are My Lucky Star, and then the cast come through in small groups to take their bows, rushing off immediately afterwards. The water has started seeping again, so we know we’re in for another soaking.
Sure enough, the cast return wearing raincoats and carrying umbrellas, and proceed to dance their way through a reprise of Singin’ In The Rain. With the stage so full, the water travels much further – are they trying to set a record for how far back the water goes? Finally they’re done and take their final bows, and we can head out into the dry night, humming happily to ourselves.
The whole production was great, and the cast looked like they were having a good time too, even with the soaking they all get. Sandra Dickinson and Michael Brandon as Dora Bailey and R F Simpson respectively were good in their roles, and the dancing and singing were top class. We’ve booked to see this again in September, and I’m looking forward to it, even if we are in Row C again!
© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me