Thalian Association is ready to welcome hurricane season with a revival of the stage adaptation of “Singin’ in the Rain.” Adapted for the stage in 1983 by the same team behind the 1952 film—book by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, lyrics by Arthur Freed, and music by Nacio Herb Brown—the show is the film brought to the stage. It appeals to many tastes in enterainment, for the love of film, music, dance, celebrity, and stage musicals. Its old “let’s put on a show” motif seems to speak to something deep within the human psyche. (We can do it! We can save it!)
At the height of their powers as silent film stars, Don Lockwood (Tracy Byrd) and Lina Lamont (Hannah Elizabeth Smith) find their careers suddenly in jeopardy when talking pictures take the cinema world by storm. Neither are prepared for the change, and Lina is in denial that she has a truly ridiculous voice and speech pattern that is far from star quality. Unluckily for Lina, her partner, Don Lockwood, has fallen head over heels for “a little nobody” named Kathy Selden (Courtney Poland). Selden agrees to secretly dub her voice for Lina’s in a new talking picture.
Smith’s performance of Lina Lamont’s atrocious voice is a marvel. To say it is grating on the ear would be kind. What is most remarkable is that the audience can clearly understand everything she says! Jena Hagen’s voice in the film version of “Singin’ in the Rain” was a memorable performance in the film and contrasted perfectly with Debbie Reynolds’ beautiful speaking voice (funny tidbit: Though Reynolds played a character who dubs a singing voice for Hagen, her songs in the film were actually dubbed by Betty Noyes). Lockwood’s best friend, Cosmo (Brad Mercier), played by Donald O’Connor in the film, manages to shepherd his friends along in their new romance and career paths.
This is a show about the jump forward in cinema to the world of talkies. Director Mirla Criste’s collaboration with Benedict R. Fancy to utilize film projections during early story-telling elements of Lockwood’s life with Cosmo features “awww”-inducing performances by Henry Gregory and Able Zuckerman as a Young Don and Cosmo. It also is utilized for the voice-dubbing scenes, which is absolutely superb. The integration is lovely and the scenes filmed for the film within the play “The Dueling Cavalier” work beautifully with the onstage banter. Combined with Terry Collins’ set design and Dallas Lafon’s lighting—especially the lighted movie marquee that announces each new chapter (a nice homage to silent films)—the visual elements come together beautifully.
But why do audiences come to see “Singin’ in the Rain” live? Because there is something powerful about live song and dance that draws people together to share in wonderful music and memorable characters. How can you not love “Make ‘Em Laugh”—the ode to comedy as a way of life and work? It is probably one of O’Connor’s definitive moments on film, though Mercier cannot literally climb the walls at Thailan Hall, he does a credible job of jumping through a wall flat and reproducing many of the other much-beloved bits from the routine, including the battle with the doll. Mercier sings beautifully and has developed into quite the dancer and performer over the last few years. He did succeed in making the audience laugh repeatedly during his antics.
Mercier and Byrd are quite convincing as lifelong friends and buddies, each of whom always have the other’s back. Some of the best dancing in the show features the two of them together, especially in the “Moses Supposes” number, as they overwhelm Lockwood’s diction coach (Cabot Basden).
For all the expectations that Mercier must live up to, it is really Tracy Byrd who must carry the weight of expectation, because everyone wants to see Gene Kelly onstage. Can you imagine the pressure? What I think works best for Byrd’s performance is that he doesn’t try to play Gene Kelly’s Don Lockwood. He dances beautifully—especially the soft-shoe sequence for the big “Singin’ in the Rain” number. Part of what is slightly surreal about the stage production is that the camera eye in the movie is so specific and especially during the “Gotta Dance” sequence. It gives us so much of Kelly’s perspective that suddenly having an entire stage to look at is disorienting when calling to mind the film. Byrd has natural charisma that makes his scenes with Poland lovely; it’s not just the women onstage who are jealous of the attention she gets form Don Lockwood!
Poland as the much classier foil to the Lina Lamont is quite believable and charming. Whereas Smith’s Lamont is like fingernails on a chalk board, Poland is sweet and well-intentioned. We can’t help but root for her. Even her interactions with the embattled studio owner R.F. Simpson (Stuart Pike, who turned in one of his best performances as the obligatory “asshole in a Jacket” that every movie set must have) leave us impressed with her good upbringing and human decency. Throw in a beautiful voice (unlike Reynolds, she appears to have sung her own songs) and dancing, and you can see how the studio would want to make a star out of her.
The ensemble really moves this show along. The big, beautiful dance numbers and truly realistic depictions of the earnestness of filmmaking adds to it. Criste is lucky to have filled out the stage with such a dedicated group of performers. This is a big and complicated show with a lot of moving pieces. So the ensemble really unites it beautifully to enable the principals to act like the movie stars we all want them to be.
“Why would you try reproduce a perfect film onstage?” my date asked.
I pointed to the families next to us—a set of grandparents and mom with three children under 12, and a cute little girl on her mother’s lap two rows over. There are some truly beloved musicals that are a wonderful way to introduce children to the theatre. The love is puppy love, not overtly sexual or complicated; the fight scenes are funny, neither frightening nor genuinely violent; and there are no elements that could confuse or cause nightmares. That’s what shows like this are about: something to share across generations, filled with catchy, funny songs and a simple story of love that succeeds against the odds because a movie executive actually does the decent thing (that’s the fictional part). For all those reasons, “Singin’ in the Rain” is successful. I predict that just like those times I swung on lampposts pretending to be Gene Kelly during youth, a couple of those little girls in the audience will be trying to do the soft-shoe in rain puddles just like Tracy Byrd.
Singin’ in the Rain
310 Chestnut Street
Through May 31
Thurs.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.