THE idea of producing a satire on the birth of talking pictures bounced around Hollywood for years, with one or two modest versions being filmed, before it landed on MGM producer Arthur Freed’s desk in the early 1950s.
After a few more twists and turns, Gene Kelly and choreographer Stanley Donen took up the challenge and, using the music of Nacio Herb Brown and lyrics by Arthur Freed, they came up with Singin’ in the Rain.
Only a modest critical success when it first appeared (big scale musicals were beginning to go out of fashion in by 1952) the film has grown and grown in stature till it has become one of the all- time great Hollywood musicals.
Since 1983 when Tommy Steele and Roy Castle scored great success with a stage version at the London Palladium, a string of productions of the story have been mounted, with varying success. Many of them have failed because they couldn’t match the production values of the mighty MGM studio and iconic performances of Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds, and Jean Hagen in the leading roles.
Undeterred by such thoughts, director Jonathan Church, Somerset born choreographer Andrew Wright and the rest of the team behind this Chichester Festival Theatre production decided to meet the challenges head on, and, more than any previous production, take the gamble and try to reproduce those classic film images, vocals, and dances as near to the original as possible.
It would be wrong to say that the production won every bid, but they certainly won enough times to ensure that this is a production that pleases the aficionados of the film and probably adds to the show’s fan-base.
It loses out on the visual presentation – here we had a mainly plain dark background compared to the glamorous colourful MGM sets. It also could not compete with studio’s sheer numbers of dancers, singers, and their own full symphony orchestra. Under MD Grant Walsh the ten-piece orchestra does a fine job of recreating those familiar, much-loved arrangements of what are now classic numbers, and apart from Beautiful Girl, where the shortage of chorus was plain to see, the dancers and backing vocal group make an equally good job of reproducing the look and the sounds that the audience had come to see and hear.
Which leaves us with those who have the hardest task of all, the four principles, Sam Lips as Don Lockwood, Kevin Clifton as Cosmo Brown, Charlotte Gooch as Kathy Seldon and Jenny Gayner as Lina Lamont. Without slavishly copying the originals, they made full use of their own talents to create four very attractive and entertaining characters who fit snugly into the production.
The romantic side of the story is safe in the hands, voices and feet of Sam Lips and Charlotte Gooch. Good to listen to as they are to watch, they happily sail through one hit number after another. I must admit that I missed the running up walls and back flips that Donald O’Conner performed in Make ’em Laugh, but as I gather he took several takes before getting the routine right, it was only fair that Kevin Clifton cheated a bit in reproducing this routine. It was the only thing he did cheat at, giving a lovely display of comedy acting and dancing throughout.
You need to be good to be deliberately bad, and with a grating voice and excellent pieces of off-key singing, Jenny Gayner painted and sustained a first-class portrait of the completely selfish Lina Lamont, a star of the silent screen about to be eclipsed.
You can catch up with this production of Singin’ in the Rain at the Mayflower Theatre, Southampton from 14th to 18th June and the Theatre Royal in Plymouth from 23rd to 27th August.