There’s a giddy delight to be had when watching Hale Theatre Centre’s new production of Singin’ in the Rain at its theatre-in-the-round presentation in Gilbert. That uncomfortable time in movie history when silent films transitioned to the talkies has a built-in, automatic level rife for parody, even if at the time for those in the business it was a deadly serious matter.
Not every actor that looked glamorous on that giant black and white screen survived the move. John Gilbert’s career plummeted, Douglas Fairbanks was never happy – he retired – and while Rudolph Valentino’s premature death at only 31 never gave him a chance for a debut in sound, the rumor mill of the day speculated that his style and accent may never have worked as well. Even Charlie Chaplin resisted as long as he could.
Despite its later success, the 1952 MGM musical comedy Singin’ in the Rain that dealt with the subject was only a modest hit when it first opened, but today it’s considered to be among the best of all of the studio’s musicals, released at the tail end of MGM’s golden period. And it’s not hard to see why. If there’s one subject the entertainment industry loves to portray it’s stories about itself. In Singin’ in the Rain, the studio developed the perfect combination of song, dance, comedy and a reflection of Hollywood set at the time when in 1927 the first talking picture, The Jazz Singer, changed everything. (For the record, only one-fourth of The Jazz Singer had sound; the first feature that was genuinely all-talking came out a year later in ‘28 called Lights of New York. But it was The Jazz Singer that caused the industry stir.)
The live stage version of the famous Gene Kelly film first opened in London in ‘83, then transferred to Broadway in ‘85. It was a faithful recreation of the movie. In fact, it adhered to the original screenplay so much, one of the show’s problems was that, other than the gimmick of having an actual rainfall occur during the show’s title song, there’s wasn’t a great deal of theatrical creativity going on. Watching the show performed with the traditional setting of a proscenium or on an open stage was just a re-enactment of something already seen. It may have entertained but it was hardly great theatre.
But at Hale Theatre Centre where the audience is seated around the players on all four sides, there’s a different kind of creativity that becomes mandatory. The director, in this case, Cambrian James, is forced to block his moves in a way where the physical closeness of his actors must be carefully positioned at all times. At least one actor needs his or her face to be seen, and it mustn’t continue to be the same face. The creativity of blocking comes when characters have to keep moving, even if the drama of the moment doesn’t necessarily call for it. Like the theatre’s 2016 production of The Drowsy Chaperone where blocking for the round worked remarkably well and actually became an advantage, much of Singin’ in the Rain benefits from the same thing. For the most part, re-designing everything to be seen from all four sides makes the all-too-familiar musical suddenly become considerably more interesting.
It’s only during the production’s pivotal scene where the invention falters. The climactic downfall of the show’s villain is played entirely on the upper north balcony. This causes several patrons with restrictive viewing to either crank their necks for a considerable length or miss the action altogether. They can treat it as an audio-only occurrence, but that really doesn’t work considering what happens up there needs to be seen. Admittedly, tackling the logistics of how it could be presented without an obstructed view for everyone would be a challenge due to the nature of what develops, but it’s a shame that something more creative couldn’t have been worked out considering how well the rest of the show performs.
Still, for the most part, Hale’s Singin’ in the Rain is a mostly joyous production. Silent film heartthrob Don Lockwood (appropriately tall and handsome with a clear, strong voice, Vaughn Sherman) and his musical partner Cosmo Brown (a funny Allan DeWitt and the possessor of a boundless energy) transition well to the talkies, but Don’s usual co-star Lina Lamont (Erica Parrish who is clearly having a ball) isn’t so lucky. That grating Judy Holliday sounding voice with a Queens accent isn’t quite what audiences expect. Plus, when it comes to musicals, Lina can’t sing, can’t act, and she can’t dance. “She’s a triple threat,” declares Cosmo. Lina’s talking might even bring back silent pictures.
Enter Kathy Seldon (a perfectly delightful Abbi Cavanaugh with a singing voice to match). Kathy becomes Lina’s recorded voice, but while the talented young woman would prefer a movie career of her own, she finds herself unwittingly trapped by a devious Lina into remaining the voice behind the curtain while the conniving silent movie star gets all the glory. It’s a terrific setup for a satire on Hollywood, but don’t think anonymous voice-dubbing was something that only happened in those bygone days. It still occurs. Marni Nixon made a career out of dubbing the singing voices of famous performers, notably Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady and Natalie Wood in West Side Story among others. And in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, you saw Andie Macdowell but you heard Glenn Close. It even happened in Singin’ in the Rain. When Debbie Reynolds’ Kathy was dubbing her singing voice for Jean Hagen’s Lina, a woman called Betty Noyes was dubbing for newcomer Reynolds. And when Lina speaks, that’s not Debbie Reynold’s speaking voice either. Believe it or not, it was actually Jean Hagen’s real speaking voice. Talk about irony.
Most of the Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown’s catalog of MGM songs are intact, with the addition of Lina’s What’s Wrong With Me? that was never in the film, though the ensemble’s Wedding of the Painted Doll and Cosmo’s Hubbub in the Broadway show are missing in the regional production, plus the ballet fantasy sequence of Broadway Melody, the dance that brought fame in the film to Cyd Charisse, is gone, replaced here by a nicely choreographed ensemble tap dance that can never fail to please. Other than Make ‘Em Laugh and Moses Supposes that were written for the film, all the other songs, pop tunes of their day, were from other movies. When writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green were commissioned to write a screenplay, all MGM gave them to work on was a title and a list of already established songs. The writers had to invent their own story to work around the tunes. Even though the term wasn’t in use during the fifties, Singin’ in the Rain is actually a Jukebox Musical.
When you walk into Hale, you’ll notice the design of the house is transformed into an effective Hollywood setting that surrounds you. The north end depicts those California hills with the famous Hollywood sign (in 1927 when the show takes place, it would have read Hollywoodland), the south is an entryway to the fictional Monumental Studios that resembles the Paramount lot, while the east and west walls display a movie screen, not unlike the classic archway interior of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre where the red carpet premieres took place. The two screens are put to great comical use as black and white scenes of The Royal Rascal and The Dueling Cavalier are recreated and projected, including the hilarious moment when the sound goes wrong and the celluloid eventually disintegrates, something modern day audiences should never witness in an age when projectors are now digital and the image comes from a chip.
The show is already a sellout, though it’s worth checking for returns, just in case. You’ll also notice the excavation work going on outside the theatre. Once everything is completed sometime in the fall of this year, from the art design displayed on a board in the theatre’s lobby, with its jutting marquee, the palm trees, and the newly paved entryway, Hale Centre Theatre may resemble a Grauman’s Chinese Theatre of its own. If perhaps sometime down the road the theatre could invest in a revolving stage like its Utah counterpart, that would absolutely seal the theater-in-the-round deal.
Singin’ in the Rain continues at Hale Centre Theatre until March 30
Production Pictures by Nick Woodward-Shaw
Cast Picture by Julia Bashaw