Although the 1952 film had only a modest performance at the box office, Singin’ in the Rain endured and became one of the most popular American movies of all time. In 1983 it was adapted for the stage and opened in London’s West End before moving to Broadway. In the three decades since then, it’s had two UK tours, two London revivals and, most recently, a production in Paris in March this year.
Set in 1929, the story depicts Hollywood’s transition from silent film to ‘talkies’. Film star Don Lockwood makes a public show of being in love with his leading lady Lina Lamont, but while she thinks their romance is real, he keeps trying – and failing – to convince her that it’s not. Then he meets Kathy, an aspiring actress who criticises his films for being formulaic. Kathy’s talents as a singer and dancer soon have Don falling for her while inspiring him to be the all-round performer needed for films with sound. When the studio decides that Don and Lina’s next film will be “100% all talking”, Don’s best friend Cosmo suggests they dub Lina’s voice with Kathy’s to avoid the disaster that Lina’s terrible voice and awful acting will bring.
Now Pieter Toerien is presenting this award-winning production with a South African cast for shows in Cape Town and Joburg after touring Wellington, Auckland, Singapore, Manila and Hong Kong. It’s a prestigious event for the Christmas theatre scene, and the musical offers a funny, feel-good spectacle to suit the summer vibe. The performance thrums with the bustling energy of 1920s Hollywood, with its kooky humour, old-fashioned romance and flapper fashion.
The trio of triple-threat leads do a stellar job. Grant Almirall (Jersey Boys) embodies the charm required for Don’s character, while Bethany Dickson (The Sound of Music) is perfect as the talented and sweetly sexy Kathy. Together they make a pleasing couple, and their duet, ‘You Were Meant for Me’ is a delight, even for this cynic.
Steven van Wyk as Cosmo is an utter star. His training and experience is evident in his comedic timing and vocal performance, but he truly shines in the dance sequences, with perfect placement and excellent footwork. The snappy precision of his movements instantly draws attention, even though his character is the slapstick sidekick to the suave leading mean.
Taryn-Lee Hudson’s performance as Lina Lamont is also particularly notable. She doesn’t dance and only ‘sings’ once (the whole point of her character is that she’s talentless) but she commands the stage as the quintessentially glamorous and sexy celebrity. At least until she starts talking, when her presence swells but her sex appeal is drowned in noise. Hudson’s voice is so shrill and her accent so trashy that I flinched almost every time she opened her mouth. Her single musical piece, ‘What’s Wrong with Me?’, is simultaneously hilarious and horrific.
Although Lina is written to be the annoying antagonist, she’s actually the most intriguing character as a woman slowly coming to the terrible realisation that new technology is about to bring her dazzling career and (fake) relationship to a swift end. Everyone thinks she’s a complete idiot who resorts to screeching melodrama or shameless sabotage, but she also reveals real business savvy and the humanising vulnerability of a person trying to retain a sense of dignity among people who have dismissed her.
As Lina, Hudson also gets to strut around in some of the most lavish outfits in a show full of superb costumes. The gorgeous 1920s fashion of Singin’ in the Rain alone is almost a reason to buy a ticket, and it has some spectacular sets to match. It appears a sizeable portion of the budget was well spent making the show an absolutely gorgeous spectacle. Even the crew are in period costume when they come out to clean the stage during the interval.
The choreography, in contrast, has been kept fairly simple – rather than trying to be overly flashy, it counts on clean execution, which the performers achieve in most – but not quite all – the sequences. ‘Beautiful Girls’ has an impressive set featuring a propeller plane, but on opening night it seemed to be the least rehearsed as the dancers looked unsure and clumsy in comparison to the rest of the sequences in the production. Almirall’s technique also faltered in the duet ‘Would You’, though perhaps as a result of the sheer exertion of dancing ‘Broadway Ballet’ moments before. This very colourful, sexy piece is one of the highlights of the show, and dancer Mila de Biaggi channels Chicago’s Velma Kelly for a spectacular, sultry performance. Another piece that stands out is the three-man tap ‘Moses Supposes’ by Van Wyk, Almirall and Kenneth Meyer. For me, it was the first sequence in the show where the dancing itself was the drawcard.
Of course everyone was waiting for the iconic ‘Singin’ in the Rain’, from which the musical takes its name, especially since it actually rains on stage. Every performance uses a staggering 12 000 litres of water to drench Almirall (and, later, the entire cast) for that famously happy dance. Anyone seated in the first three rows is given a plastic poncho for when Don splashes them with his footloose and fancy-free moves.
It’s fun to watch, and the audience was delighted, although you have to ask how impressive the sequence would be if it didn’t have the weight of fame and nostalgia behind it. The downside to the show is something that becomes apparent once you’ve left the theatre: it’s not all that memorable. The performances are (mostly) well-executed, but the substance of the show – the choreography, music and characters – are less impressive than its impeccable style and the crowd-pleasing gimmick of having it rain on stage.
That said, Singin’ in the Rain is charming to the eye and easy on the ear and it does what a musical should – entertain. The music, singing, dancing, acting, costumes and set design all combine in a bright, harmonious whole that can make South African audiences proud.
Singin’ in the Rain is on at the Artscape until 10 January 2016. The production then opens at The Teatro at Montecasino on 15 January 2016.