SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN

★★★★★★

_REVIEW.   it’s about _THEATRE.   words _KYLE PEDLEY.   at _BIRMINGHAM HIPPODROME.   tickets _OFFICIAL SITE.   booking until _11th JUN.

June 7, 2022

images © Johan Persson/Storyhouse.

When discussing the future of cinema these days, it’s not uncommon to hear commentators lamenting the death of the mid-budget, the monopoly of the Disney behemoth, or the increasing encroachment of long-form streaming productions stealing much of the silver screen’s thunder.

Roll back the clock to a Century ago, and a similar hysteria was bubbling up over the advent of the ‘talkies’. Not unlike the digitally-enabled disruption of Netflix, technology was offering up solutions to ‘problems’ that fat cat studio heads hadn’t even considered.

The decades that followed would see Hollywood amuse itself over this temporary identity crisis, leading to such bonafide classics as Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Singin’ In The Rain (1952), offering up dramatised explorations of the impact that the arrival of sound had on the studio system and its stars.

It makes the stage adaptation of Rain something of a multi-layered curio – a modern stage adaptation of a classic Hollywood musical which, in and of itself, depicts the hype, hullabaloo and fallout surrounding the fictional production of the world’s first movie musical.

There’s scope for almost nauseating postmodernism there. Fortunately, for all its potential nudge, nudge, wink, wink navel-gazing, Singin’ In The Rain doesn’t bog itself down trying to be overly intertextual or clever. Nor does it try and offer a thesis or commentary on the politics of old Hollywood and how far they may or may not have come, in the post me-too, Heard V Depp era.

No, the return of Jonathan Church’s celebrated production of Rain knows that, for all of its vintage Hollywood trappings, it is a stage musical first and foremost, and a staggeringly confident and polished one at that. Yes, it inherits so much of what makes the original Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds favourite such a giddy delight, not least of all a slew of instantly recognisable and hummable staples, but also some lesser known treats too, such as one of both cinema, and now theatre’s, most consistently hilarious and delectable antagonists.

 Singin’ in the what-now?.. – Gene Kelly‘s titular dance number in the 1952 classic (pictured above,  © MGM/All Star) has gone on to become one of the most iconic feel-good moments in film history. It also generated one of cinema’s longest-standing urban legends, that the production crew added milk to the rain pouring down on Kelly during the sequence, in order that it registered better on-camera. It has since been debunked by, amongst others, Kelly’s co-star Debbie Reynolds.

Church and his fellow creatives, including designer Simon Higlett and choreographer Andrew Wright, go to town putting on a lavish spectacle of a show that wouldn’t look remotely place either on an LA backlot, or indeed a West End stage. The film’s fairly rote boy-meets-girl yarn has at least a sprinkle of Hollywood glamour, as dashing movie star Don Lockwood (Sam Lips) falls for talented aspiring actress, Kathy Sheldon (Charlotte Gooch), just as word begins to spread around Tinseltown that a whole new way of making movies is on the approach.

It’s all terrible timing for Lockwood, not least of all because the world seems to think he is already an item with his brattish co-star, Lena (Jenny Gayner) who, by coincidence, has a voice that can curl toes.

Singin’ In The Rain does little – either on film or here on the stage – to be particularly original with its romantic A-plot, but it doesn’t really need to. Cast aside any assumptions that the humour of fifties’ moviemaking would somehow be dated or dry; with the comedic talents of Gayner in a side-splitting, scene-devouring turn as Lena, or Ross McLaren as a human bundle of tireless comic energy as Don’s long-time friend and collaborator, Cosmo, Singin’ is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, and never anything less than infectiously feel-good.

 Singin’ in the what-now?.. – Gene Kelly‘s titular dance number in the 1952 classic (pictured above,  © MGM/All Star) has gone on to become one of the most iconic feel-good moments in film history. It also generated one of cinema’s longest-standing urban legends, that the production crew added milk to the rain pouring down on Kelly during the sequence, in order that it registered better on-camera. It has since been debunked by, amongst others, Kelly’s co-star Debbie Reynolds.

It’s a big production, too. Higlet’s staging and Tim Mitchell’s lighting harmonise to create a colossus of a touring production that soars above the stage, and presents a level of technical and visual artistry that even many London and Broadway productions would struggle to match. It’s a dazzling, technicolour playground that houses some of the most stunning choreography and set pieces, both large and small. The more focused and character-centric beats of, say, ‘Good Morning’ or ‘Moses Supposes’ allows the central cast to strut their stuff and repeatedly wow, be it with tap, slapstick, ballet or beyond, whilst the grander moments of ‘Broadway Melody’ and of course, the iconic, titular staple, are grand, joyous explosions of colour, talent and top-tier stagecraft.

“…presents a level of technical and visual artistry that even many London and Broadway productions would struggle to match.”

Watch as a gaggle of receptionists duck, bob and weave in and out of one another whilst phone cords craft a spider’s web of choreographic intricacy. See McLaren quite literally swing a ladder around his neck as he jaunts about wearing a paint bucket for a shoe. Or just bathe in the luminous brilliance of an extended dream sequence in the lights of Broadway.

Oh, and good luck finding another touring production willing or capable of dumping 14,000 litres of water on its cast (and some audience members!) every night.

It’s all just superb.

Deserving enormous credit for this are the cast assembled for this return performance. Whilst there are some familiar names and faces scattered throughout the UK tour dates of this revival, including some that have been with the show since its early Chichester days, the company on stage at Birmingham truly deliver something special.

The core trio of Lips, Gooch and McLaren are staggeringly good, with any combination of the three whipping up effortless magic on stage. In lesser hands, the cookie-cutter nature of Lips and Gooch’s affair could be yawn-inducing. Here, putty in the hands (and feet) of complete pros, it becomes almost transcendent in its loveliness. That they are both in as fine a voice as they are deportment and movement, is just the cherry on the cake.

Elsewhere, Gayner is, as mentioned, an absolute riot as Lina, giving an uproariously funny turn as a kind of older, squeakier, less talented yet far more entitled Shirley Temple on steroids.

It’s rare to say it about any production – theatre, film or otherwise – but Singin’ In The Rain gets pretty much everything right. The talent, passion and craftsmanship on display is evident in every swing, tap and note from the off. Be it in Chichester, London, Broadway or even Hollywood, Church’s production is so glorious and so polished, it would fit right in.

It’s been roughly a Century since the world welcomed in the newfangled concept of movies with spoken dialogue, and the movie musical becoming a Hollywood fixture. Heck, the centenary of the original Rain itself isn’t that far off, in the grand scheme of things.

It would all somewhat excuse a stage adaptation of Singin’ In The Rain that felt old hat, dated or perhaps lost amongst modern theatregoing experiences.

What Church and company have delivered is, once again, the polar opposite. It is a gorgeous hybrid of vintage Hollywood stylings mixed with lavish, modern stagecraft and spectacle. It is the very essence of musical excellence, and the reason we go to the theatre.

Leave the brolly. Come showers or shine, Singin’ In The Rain will leave you smiling and singing all the way home.

And for another anniversary? In a decade of reviewing, this particular writer has only ever given one show a mythical ‘six star’ rating.

It’s time for another.

Musical perfection. With more than a splash of vintage Hollywood magic in its bones, this is a toe-tapping, brolly-swirling, dazzling technicolor delight. The very essence of timeless excellence.

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