Photo by Mateusz Blach, courtesy of Front Row Centre Players Society. Left to Right; Jarryd Baine, Tanis Laatsch, Graeme Humphrey
Singing In the Rain
October 5 – 20, 2012
A silent-screen leading man finds love while trying to adjust to the coming of sound. No, I’m not giving a description of the recent Oscar-winning movie, The Artist, but rather the 1952 film, Singing in the Rain. And just in case you’re not catching my derisive tone here, I will go on record with my opinion that The Artist was merely a gimmicky imitative version of the far superior Gene Kelly/Debbie Reynolds classic.
In other words, I have fond feelings about the movie Singing in the Rain. Feelings that get rankled when remakes, remounts or retakes are attempted. So it was with some hesitation that I agreed to go and see Front Row Centre’s musical production.
Using the original stage adaptation that spawned the 1983 West End production and the 1985 Broadway run, Front Row Centre’s Singing in the Rain closely adheres to the original plot of the movie. Which is good. But at almost 3 hours running time, the production with its muddy sound, uneven performances and at times soulless efforts, left a lot to be desired. Yes there were some delightfully surprising moments and performances that distracted from the show’s shortcomings for a while. But those shortcomings were plentiful and unfortunately the bright spots couldn’t always make up for what was missing.
The story introduces us to Don Lockwood, a silent film star with roots in musical theatre and his ditzy and untalented beautiful co-star Lina Lamont. While billed as a real couple by the studio to help sell pictures, in real life Don can’t stand Lina, who is convinced that their screen romance is real. The pair and the studio face a crises after the first talking movie, The Jazz Singer, proves to be a smash hit. The studio decides that it has no choice but to produce a talking movie with their own stars, but production issues plague the set and Lina’s hysterically grating voice threatens to ruin not just the film, but the studio itself. After a disastrous first screening, Don’s friend Cosmo Brown comes up with an idea to have Lina lip-sync her part and instead use aspiring actress Kathy Seldon’s beautiful voice in the movie. Lina is furious at the idea, both out of ego and because she knows that Don is falling in love with Kathy. But the overdubbing goes ahead and the movie is a smash success. All seems perfect for the stars and the studio until Lina proves she’s not as dumb as everyone thinks and Don and Cosmo prove that in the end, the sweet and honest characters always have the last laugh in comedic musicals.
Most of the issues I have with this production fall in the lap of Director Jay Newman who seems intent on letting this show run extraneously long and with some serious sound issues. I appreciate wanting to give every single song its due, but with so many superfluous numbers and scenes, the action moved along at a slow jerky pace, often sapping the energy needed in a feel good musical. Half an hour or more could have easily been cut out of the production without affecting the story whatsoever and I was dearly sorry it wasn’t.
However, more problematic was the sound. When faced with a cast that almost uniformly suffered from soft or weak voices, it’s a director’s job to get the actors to project. As my colleague Louis Hobson (Calgary Sun Theatre Critic and director) says to his cast when in the director’s chair, “You can’t make ‘em love you if they don’t hear you!” Too many times during the show the cast was either drowned out by the 16-person live orchestra or could not be heard while simply delivering dialogue. I could have excused this if the production I saw had been a rehearsal or even opening night. But to have these types of missteps halfway through the production is unforgivable.
Not to mention a shame as there were some impressive performances I wish I could have had a clearer picture of. And some I was happy to not have had. Jarryd Baine as Don Lockwood lends a soft, but decent voice to his character and manages at times to exude the charisma required for the role. Baine’s dancing (expertly choreographed by Karen Iwanski) is well executed and while I found his “Singing in the Rain” number to be somewhat soulless in spite of the realistic rain pouring down on him, there is no question that his technical skills are there. Bethany McNab as Lina bites deliciously into her character role, obviously enjoying her turn as the whiny, dumb movie star. McNab really gets to show her stuff in the second act and easily grabbed our attention with her delightfully funny acting and singing. A serious weak spot in the cast was Tanis Laatsch as Kathy Seldon whose lovely voice could not make up for her stiff and lifeless acting and less than inspired dancing. However, if I only had one performer to talk about, it would be Graeme Humphrey as Cosmo Brown. The most natural and talented dancer/actor of the bunch, Humphrey stole the show with his physically challenging scenes and comedic lines providing the most fun of the night. Whether it was it solo dancing/singing in the famous “Make ‘em Laugh” number or his duet with Baine in the superbly choreographed and performed “Moses Supposes” musical scene, Humphrey’s combination of nimble dance moves, ease of delivery and comic timing made him the one to watch.
A particular challenge with the stage adaptation of Singing in the Rain is set design. With choppy flash-card scenes and multiple locations to accommodate, sets either need to change dramatically at a rapid-fire pace (which is labour intensive and expensive) or the sets need to be minimal and moveable. It was the latter that Set Designers Bryan Francis and Janos Zeller chose to do with this production, yet instead of being interestingly minimal; the design veered toward looking cheap. Most offensive was the black parachute material curtain used as both a scrim to project the silent and talking movies on and the background for many scenes. Wrinkled as though packed in the bottom of a suitcase and forgotten about for days, the unevenly hung curtain made the projections look amateurish and the scenes it backdropped, unkempt. It was an easy thing to fix and a glaring sore thumb that it wasn’t.
In the end though, Singing in the Rain is really about the songs. Most people know them and love them and go to see the production to hear them all over again. In this regard, the production does deliver nicely. Even with the sound issues and some performance disappointments, the songs were honourably presented and I defy anyone from not singing along in your head or smiling a bit as the favorites play out on stage. If Singing in the Rain was a better show than I’d expected but a less good one then I hoped, well at least I got to hum along with the crowd.
For the guys – Watching Don and Cosmo horse around and be boys will leave you wishing you could sing and dance. If only the rest was that well done. MAYBE SEE IT
For the girls – The leading lady certainly doesn’t lead in this production. But the boys will charm and you’ll laugh at Lina. MAYBE SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – If you loved the movie and want a chance to see the songs done live accompanied by some outstanding choreography, you’re in luck. SEE IT
For the theatre junkie – Keep an eye out for Humphrey in future productions, but stay home and rent the movie if you need a Singing in the Rain fix. SKIP IT