Stage Door Review

Singin’ in the Rain

Thursday, October 13, 2022

✭✭✭✭✩

music by Nacio Herb Brown, lyrics by Arthur Freed, book by Betty Comden & Adolph Green, directed by Jonathan Church

Mirvish Productions, Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto

September 29-October 23, 2022

“What a wonderful feeling"

If you’re looking for a show guaranteed to lighten your mood, look no further than Singin’ in the Rain now playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre. The show will not only perk you up that evening but every time you think of it in the weeks afterward. The musical is filled with many hit songs besides the famous title tune and is staged with elegance and panache.

The stage musical premiered in London in 1983, but is based on the classic film musical of the same name from 1952 directed by Stanley Donen. The movie has music by Nacio Herb Brown, lyrics by Arthur Freed and book by the team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the duo behind a dozen famous musicals. What is unusual about the stage version of Singin’ in the Rain is that Comden and Green themselves rewrote the screenplay as the book for the musical. For that reason the stage musical retains a close fidelity to the screen musical.

For those who need a brief refresher on the plot, the musical is set in Hollywood in 1927, a fateful year in movie history since it was then that Warner Brothers released The Jazz Singer, the first full-length talking picture. Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont are the stars of the day in silent pictures and Monumental Pictures links them romantically for extra publicity, even though Don can’t stand Lina. After the success of The Jazz Singer Monumental decides it can’t buck the trend and decides the next Rockwell-Lamont vehicle will be a talkie.

Unfortunately, lovely as Lina looks on screen, she has a screechy voice and strong Brooklyn accent unpleasant in themselves, but not at all suitable for a picture set during the French Revolution. Cosmo, an accompanist and Don’s pal from vaudeville, has the idea of having Kathy Selden, a girl Don has met and fallen for, dub Lina’s voice and singing in the film. The movie is a huge success but Lina now wants Kathy to dub all her future films, a move that would prevent Kathy from ever being a star in her own right. What can Don do to help the girl he loves?

The screen version of Singin’ in the Rain is widely regarded not only as the best movie musical ever made but one of the greatest films ever made. (It came in at number 20 on Sight and Sound’s 2012 list of “The 100 Greatest Films of All Time”.) This point will be a problem for any movie buffs seeing the show since Singin’ in the Rain is essentially a movie about movie-making. The stage version can only be theatre about movie-making and can thus never capture the metacinematic nature of the film.

Nevertheless, director Jonathan Church in this production from the Chichester Festival Theatre deploys a wide range of theatrical techniques to substitute for the film’s use of a wide range of cinematic techniques. Sometimes these don’t work as in the number “Make ’Em Laugh” in which there’s in no easy way on a stage to replicate Donald O’Connor’s rapid screen journey through set after set after set. More often Church’s solutions are brilliant such as the quick switching from onstage to backstage that happens at the very end which is indicated simply through Tim Mitchell’s lighting of a central curtain and through the movement and gestures of the actors.

The great advantage the stage version of Singin’ in the Rain has over the film, as indeed all theatre has over film, is the sense of presence. The cast are in the same space as the audience and we are both aware of the fact. What we see is happening when we see it, not months or years ago and not selected from numerous takes. This makes exciting dances more exciting and we affect the performance with our laughter, applause, silence and quick intakes of breath.

The height of theatricality is Church’s staging of the famous title song. When Sam Lips as Don breaks into “Singin’ in the Rain”, it is really raining on stage. 14,000 litres of water fall every night onto part of a set Simon Higlett has cleverly designed with a gradual slope towards the audience before it hits a raised barrier. The water falls at a rate that causes it to pool before it drains. Thus Lips can do all the signature moves of Gene Kelly in the scene which have been integrated into Andrew Wright’s choreography.

The water provides an extension of every movement of Lips’s feet and is especially fun during the frequent occasions when he does a high kick towards the audience. Lips can lift a lot a water on the top of his shoe. (Audience members in the first two rows are offered plastic ponchos before the show.) Unlike any film, this sequence really reaches out and hits the audience. If you like Lips’s splash-dancing, just make sure you do not leave the theatre during the curtain calls. The scene is so joyous because it is so close to pure childlike play, and that uplifting mood pervades the entire production.

Church has at his disposal the talents of a remarkable cast. Chief among these is American Sam Lips, last seen in Toronto as the lead in the musical Strictly Ballroom in 2017. Lips, a true triple-threat, makes the Gene Kelly role of Don Lockwood his own. Lips has a strong, rich singing voice ideal for Golden Age musicals, and he beautifully colours his tone to match the sentiment of the lyrics. He is a solid actor, expert in conveying the vulnerability of the regular guy who lies beneath the surface of the great movie star. His dancing is fantastic in its athleticism and elegance. He is graceful in every style from tap and jazz to ballroom.

The night I saw the show Briana Craig took over the role of Kathy Selden from Charlotte Gooch. Craig’s combination of pluck and vitality easily conjured up Debbie Reynolds in the film. Her singing is strong and sweet and her dancing is elegant and a perfect match for Sam Lips. Their duets together, whether singing or dancing, were always the most moving sequences in the show.

Alastair Crosswell doesn’t quite come up to the level of Donald O’Connor as Don’s comic sidekick Cosmo Brown. His singing is not as strong as his impressive dancing, and he doesn’t fully convey the mischievous, devil-may-care attitude of a character who may act like a clown but is really the cleverest person in the room.

Faye Tozer is a hoot as the seemingly archetypal dumb blonde Lina Lamont. Tozer realizes that Lina is actually a richly comic figure. Tozer shows that Lina is vain and grasping but also suggests that there is a vein of insecurity that motivates this behaviour, a quality that only becomes worse when talkies come in. Tozer adroitly demonstrates that there is a fine line between being stupid and unconsciously comic and being stupid and malicious. Tozer has Lina’s Brooklyn accent and grating tone down poifectly and is absolutely hilarious when Lina sings, terribly off-key, of course.

In smaller roles Sandra Dickinson is delightful as the Hedda Hopper-like gossip-monger Dora Bailey, who goes on speculating about actors even after she’s been told the truth. Harriet Samuel-Gray is outstanding as a character known only as “Broadway Melody Girl”. This is a woman who is featured in the extended Broadway melody ballet that represents what Cosmo imagines a musical film could be like. Samuel-Gray is sultry, sensual, lithe and acrobatic and completely dominates the nightclub scene she’s in.

Singin’ in the Rain offers up an evening of pure fun along with a display of outstanding talent. The show lifts your spirits so high that one visit may not be enough. 

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Ensemble of Singin’ in the Rain, © 2021 Manuel Harlan; Sam Lips as Don Lockwood, © 2022 Johan Persson; Faye Tozer as Lina Lamont and Sam Lips as Don Lockwood, © 2022 Johan Persson.

For tickets visit www.mirvish.com.