Reviewed by Christopher Comte
As 5th Avenue Theatre's Artistic Director, David Armstrong points out in his program notes for this luminous, giddy stage adaptation of the 1952 MGM musical masterpiece "Singin' In The Rain", "how appropriate that a Seattle boy would pen that lyric!" And indeed, most theatre-goers are probably unaware of producer/songwriter Arthur Freed's connections to "rain city". Although born in South Carolina, Freed's parents moved to Seattle when he was still a toddler, and he lived here until graduating from high school. From Seattle he moved to Chicago, where he met Minnie Marx, sister of the famed comedy quartet, with whom he toured for several years on the national vaudeville circuit. After WWI he ended up in Los Angeles, where he was tapped by MGM to write lyrics for the emerging film "talkies". The rest of course, is cinematic history. "The Freed Unit", as his production ensemble would later be known assembled the greatest musical stars in the MGM stable, turning out a body of work that includes such unforgettable films as "The Wizard Of Oz" (1939), "Meet Me In St. Louis" (1940), "On The Town" (1949), as well as what is considered by many the greatest movie musical of all time, 1952's "Singin' In The Rain".
This production, slated for a brief west coast tour, is given a stylish treatment by veteran regional theatre director Jamie Rocco, capturing all the magic of the film version, right down to a spectacular rendition of the famous title song sequence. Although essentially a reprise of Paper Mill Playhouse's 1994 production (in addition to Rocco, this show also shares scenic designer Michael Anania's gaudy, flapper-era scenery, along with lead Michael Gruber in the role of the singin', dancin' Don Lockwood), under Rocco's helming the show sparkles with wit, elegance, and just enough larger-than-life pizzaz to feel brand-spanking new. With the addition of hilarious video sequences by Michael Harris, the entire production presents a frothy mixture of romance, comedy and spectacular dance routines, which while inevitably falling short of the astronomical standards set by the film itself, nevertheless easily transports its audience to the Hollywood(land) hey-days of the early 1920's, when the film industry was making the transition from the silent-era to sound.
The script by veteran Broadway duo Betty Comden and Adolph Green loosely parallels the plot of Kauffman & Hart's 1932 comedy "Once In A Lifetime", following the antics of a pair of vaudeville song-and-dance men; Gruber, and his effervescent sidekick Cosmo Brown (a dazzlingly silly Michael Arnold) as they move up the entertainment ladder from stage comedy, to silent films and finally into the "talkies". Thrown into the mix is Lockwood's perennial co-star, Lina Lamont (the always side-splitting Lisa Estridge), so much a product of her own publicity machine that she actually believes she and Lockwood are engaged, despite his constant denials. When a chance meeting with a "legitmate actress", Kathy Seldon (Christina Saffran Ashford) sets his heart a-reeling, Lockwood finds himself in a state of conflict between his professional ambitions and his romantic desires. As anyone familiar with the film already knows, the results are spectacularly hilarious as Don, with Kathy's help adapts to the new medium, while the intransigent Lina gets her inevitable comeuppance
The foursome at the heart of "Singin' In The Rain" couldn't have been better matched. Gruber plays up his physical resemblance to the indelible Gene Kelly to generally good effect, and shows a masterful grasp of the material, both in song and dance. Although at first somewhat stiff and affected, as the play progresses we see him gradually shed his over-the-top mannerisms, a subtle reminder of the concurrent change in acting styles demanded by the new medium. Estridge, with her impeccable comic timing easily holds her own, milking Lina's nasal Brooklyn rasp for all its comic potential without crossing into mocking self-parody. Arnold, as the exuberant Cosmo, proves a remarkable physical comedian (anybody who can sneak a split-second tribute to the late Jerome "Curly" Howard, as he does in his wildly slapstick solo turn, "Make 'Em Laugh" is okay by me!), pushing the role to physical extremes without losing sight of the character's good-natured humanity. Together, Gruber and Arnold gleefully hoof their way through tap routines on numbers such as, "Fit As A Fiddle" and "Moses Supposes" with the anarchic joy of two pals on a lark. Ashford, as the romantic interest, balances the devil-may-care antics of the boys with a grounded, sympathetic performance, highlighted by her torchy rendition of "You Are My Lucky Star", a popular ballad that Freed previously used in his 1935 Broadway Melody and 1939's Babes In Arms.
With his leads secure, director Rocco has plenty of time to develop the world of "Singin' In The Rain", giving it the sort of subtle polish that makes the film version such a treat. Little touches add luster to the production, such as when we notice that the blocking from Don and Lina's last silent picture is recreated gesture-for-gesture for their "talkie", The Dueling Cavalier, pointing up a comment made by Kathy on her and Don's first meeting that she doesn't go to the movies much because, "When you've seen one, you've seen them all.". In addition, he gets solid work out of the supporting cast of 5th Avenue regulars, especially Anthony Curry as the flamboyant film director, Roscoe Dexter, Suzy Hunt doing double duty as a gossipy reporter and a put upon elocution teacher, and Greg Michael Allen, who gets solid laughs as Lina's exasperated sound engineer. The chorus numbers, especially the Ziegfield inspired "Beautiful Girl", and a "Moses" reprise are the kind of old-fashioned, over-the-top routines that become instant crowd pleasers. But, equally strong is the other Kelly signature piece in the show, the lush and romantic "Broadway Ballet" number late in Act II, which brings the production fully into the (at the time) modern era with its "Guys And Dolls" stylistic influences, and a standout performance by Maya RS Perkins handling the Cyd Charisse role with elegance and polish.
While comparisons between the film and stage versions are inevitable, suffice to say that this edition of "Singing In The Rain" overcomes many of the inherent limitations of the live medium, while at the same time allowing for sterling performances that for many stretches of the evening make one completely forget their memorable predecessor. For a sparkling evening of top-notch, gloriously realized romantic spectacle, this production truly truly fits the bill. Not bad for a local boy, indeed.