The transition from silent to talking pictures in the late 1920s has provided gist for documentaries – Kevin Brownlow’s wonderful and definitive “Hollywood” (1980) – and dramatic tragedies – Sunset Boulevard (1950) – but certainly the most beloved is the musical comedy Singin’ in the Rain (1952).
Although Betty Comden and Adolph Green adapted the musical in the 1980s from their 30-year-old film screenplay, it is a huge challenge presenting many of the purely cinematic tricks and effects on the live stage. In the iconic film sequence of Gene Kelly dancing with an umbrella, for example, separately recorded sound effects were dubbed in from uncredited assistant choreographer Gwen Verdon tap-dancing in water. Theatre by the Sea uses a clever set with real water streaming down from the rafters, credited to Kyle Dixon as scenic designer.
The original film was a jukebox musical, produced by Arthur Freed with songs previously written by himself and Nacio Herb Brown. Even the title song, “Singin’ in the Rain,” was from a 1929 film, and most of the rest, including “You Are My Lucky Star” and “Good Morning,” are from 1930s films. Two songs, “Make ‘Em Laugh” and “Moses Supposes,” were written for the film by Comden and Green.
There are a ton of wink-wink references to the 1920s: the musical (like the film) opens with Hollywood gossip columnist “Dora Bailey” (Ellen Peterson) bearing a striking resemblance to the real-life Louella Parsons, a friendly knock at Sunset Boulevard that used Hedda Hopper, Parsons’ real-life rival. Bailey is at the premiere of the new silent film starring “Don Lockwood” (Tim Falter) and “Lina Lamont” (Mychal Phillips), produced by “R.F. Simpson” (Curt Denham) and directed by “Roscoe Dexter” (Thom Warren). (The Simpson character is a fairly faithful caricature of Arthur Freed.) Bailey introduces “Olga Mara” (Madi Beumee) who, like real-life 1920s star Pola Negri, has just recently married a European nobleman. Escaping from his obsessive fans, Lockwood encounters “Kathy Selden” (Allsun O’Malley) who dresses him down for his limited acting range, and he becomes infatuated with her.
Simpson decides he must keep up with the competition and abandon silents for the new “talkies,” but his female lead, Lamont, has an irritatingly squeaky voice with a Bronx accent, reducing test audiences to laughter. (That was based on a real incident involving John Gilbert, who was unsuccessful making the transition to talkies not because of his voice but because of the unintentionally humorous idiotic drivel provided as scripted dialogue.) Attempts to hire theatrical diction coaches for Lamont (Peterson) and Lockwood (James Schultz) do not go well.
Announcements before the show included a notice that someone had left their car with the engine running, eliciting laughter from the audience that drowned out the rest of the announcements. As a result, I did not learn until confirming via e-mail the next day that the important role of “Cosmo Brown,” the best friend of Don Lockwood, was being played by understudy Conor Coughlin (replacing Sean McGibbon): Coughlin was a joy to watch every time he was on the stage, with his fluid dancing reminding my companion at the theater of Donald O’Connor (who played the role in the film) and reminding me of Dick Van Dyke in his prime. The lifelong vaudeville partnership of Lockwood and Brown is charmingly demonstrated by child actors Kate Rocchio and Liam McCarthy, respectively, in a brief but substantial synchronized dance routine.
Brown, Lockwood, and Simpson conspire to solve the problem of Lamont’s voice by dubbing in Selden for her dialogue and singing parts without telling her, but Lamont hears about it from her friend “Zelda Zanders” (Kaylee Verble), extorting promises to keep it secret using studio publicity flack “Rod” (Schultz); Zanders is described as the “Zip Girl,” an allusion to 1920s “It Girl” Clara Bow.
Singin’ in the Rain is an outstanding production from Theatre by the Sea in every way: the singing, the dancing, the music, and the acting are top-notch. Falter as Lockwood and O’Malley as Selden are excellent vocalists and dancers, and they have good chemistry together. Phillips as villainess Lamont has one solo (“What’s Wrong with Me?”) that she has to perform in the artificially annoying voice of her character, and she masters it. Denham as Simpson and Warren as Dexter are hilarious.
The choreography, credited to Kelli Barclay (who also directs), is dazzling with the lushness of the film in a live setting. Kelly Gleason is credited as assistant director and assistant choreographer; she also dances the iconic colubrine role of the “girl in the green dress,” a character inspired by 1920s vamp Louise Brooks who was played in the film by Cyd Charisse. Falter clearly has a large part in this, both in his personal performance and as dance captain; according to information provided by the theater, Falter once performed the role of Lockwood with Debbie Reynolds, who originated the role of Selden in the film, sitting front-row center. The costumes, credited to David Costa-Cabral, colorfully evoke the age of the flapper.
Solid performances are turned in by the orchestra: Milton Granger as musical director and on keyboard, Mike Sartini on drums, Nathan Urdangen on keyboard, Joe Bentley on bass, Greg Whitaker on trumpet, Rich Marchetti on flute, clarinet, and alto sax, and James Monaghan and Seth Budahl on trombones.
Several hilarious bespoke black-and-white video recordings made to represent excerpts from the films within the show deserve special praise, credited to Hamlin Media Productions consisting of Eric Hamlin, Mike Callahan, and Tyler Hamlin, shot on location at the Middlebridge School in Narragansett.
Even if you have no idea who Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper, Rudolph Valentino, John Gilbert, Louise Brooks, Pola Negri, and Clara Bow were, Singin’ in the Rain at Theatre by the Sea is a superbly enjoyable production of a classic show – but if you do recognize those names from silent screen Hollywood, it respects that history.
Singin’ in the Rain, adapted by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, music by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, directed by Kelli Barclay, music directed by Milton Granger, Bill Hanney’s Theatre by the Sea, 364 Cards Pond Rd, Wakefield. Through July 13. About 2h30m including 20m intermission. Handicap accessible. Full restaurant and bar on premises. Tel: (401)782-3800 Box office: (401)782-8587 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Web: theatrebythesea.com/singinintherain.html Tickets: web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/999870