Original Screenplay: Betty Comden and Adolph Green
Songs: Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed
Director: Jonathan Church
Jukebox musicals get a bad rap, often deservedly so. But framing a whole show around a specific back catalogue can often produce superb results if framed by a good book. And none come better than Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s screenplay for Singin’ in the Rain, the 1952 film devised as a vehicle by Arthur Freed for the songs he wrote with Nacio Herb Brown.
Only a modest success on release, time has afforded the film classic status, due in part to the combination of a sparklingly witty screenplay and Gene Kelly’s demanding dance routines.
This Chichester Festival production, first staged in 2011 and which subsequently enjoyed a West End run, keeps as faithfully as it can to the film. For the most part, this works like a charm, and the occasional deviations – such as Adam Cooper’s silent movie star Don Lockwood meeting ingénue Kathy Selden (Charlotte Gooch) on a deserted street, rather than dropping into her car while escaping a horde of fans – strike a neat balance between adaptation and slavish loyalty.
The story, of a silent film studio whose rapid transition to the talking era risks being scuppered by a star whose extreme Brooklyn accent is at odds with her demure image, is replete with comedic moments. Leading the comedy is Faye Tozer’s Lina Lamont, an outrageously larger-than-life harridan.
Tozer, whose theatre credits are somewhat overshadowed by her career as one-fifth of Steps, is truly remarkable here: perhaps the best Lina since Jean Hagan’s Oscar-nominated turn in the original. Every utterance is pitch-perfectly awful, which culminates in a performance of What’s Wrong With Me? (a new addition to the stage version). As Eric Morecambe, who with Ernie Wise produced one of the greatest tributes to the film’s most iconic dance sequences, might say, ‘Tozer’s Lina might be hitting all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order’. The actress also survives one of the stage adaptation’s most egregious removal of one of the film’s classic lines – no more declamation that Lina makes “more money than Calvin Coolidge – put together!” Instead, the uncredited book adapters insert a line about the Warner Brothers and their sisters that not even Tozer can save.
Elsewhere, most of the comedy comes from Kevin Clifton’s Cosmo Brown. The combination of dance skills and charismatic slapstick seems perfectly attuned with the personality Clifton exuded in his years on Strictly Come Dancing. This is evidenced in the recreation of his key solo routine Make ’Em Laugh, although the back-flipping climax of Donald O’Connor’s original movie routine is replaced with a series of feints that rob the star of a true show-stopping moment.
Both Clifton and Cooper possess fine, serviceable singing voices that pale into comparison with the strength of Gooch’s vocals. But the reason both stars are cast here – Cooper reprising his Chichester and West End role to Clifton’s newcomer – is also the reason why Sadler’s Wells doesn’t feel like an inappropriate venue for such a musical, and that is the emphasis on dance.
From a tap dancing elocution lesson with Moses Supposes to the Broadway Melody ballet-within-a-dream-sequence-in-a-movie-that’s-now-a-stage-musical sequence, the choreography hews close to its celluloid predecessor. And of course, that applies double to the iconic sequence where, as the rain machines goes into overdrive, Cooper kicks and splashes his way through a Californian rainstorm, drenching the first few rows of the stalls as he goes.
It is, of course, a visual spectacle – and one which somewhat makes up for other sequences where Cooper’s dancing, while replete with his customary precision, has a tendency to convey a touch of dispassionate disinterest. Traits that, thankfully, are not borne by the rest of the tightly-knit ensemble.
Also acting against the show is the need to have the Singin’ in the Rain dance sequence close Act I. This results in an unbalanced structure, accentuated by the second act’s reliance on reprises and the cast’s different interpretations of Would You.
But such frustrations can hardly deflect from the huge grins that the whole affair brings to the faces of audiences who have been deprived of such spectacle for a year. And for all the splash of the dance routines, it is Tozer’s divinely dramatic diva that makes the whole show.
Continues until 5 September 2021