Friday 5 August 2011

Singin' in the Rain, Or No Expenses Spared but you can't buy Heart

It is fairly obvious why the Chichester Festival should hit on the idea of staging Singin' in the Rain. Everybody knows the film. It promises wondrous watery effects. It is in short bankable, and judging by the near sell out house it is indeed proving to be so. Probably a good percentage of the audience thoroughly enjoyed themselves, and I am simply proving once again what a cummudgeonly type of theatregoer I am. But I just can't help it, for all the sharp choreography and no expense spared production which have been thrown at this enterprise, there is an emptiness at the heart of it. The afternoon as a whole left me cold, and at times I fear a little bored.

Partly it is a problem of performances. Now obviously, and this is a drawback of the source material, anyone coming to these roles has to fill some pretty big shoes – each of the three leads has to make those of us who have seen the film forget that they are not Debbie Reynolds, Donald O'Connor and Gene Kelly. On the other hand the same applies across the arts generally – for example Kevin Spacey in Richard III had to make me forget Jonathan Slinger in the RSC Cycle. The Glyndebourne Meistersinger had to make me forget the Royal Opera House production with John Tomlinson and Thomas Allen. In other words just because a particular interpreter has defined a role for a member of the audience it does not follow that no one else can ever play that role. It does however follow that you probably need really top drawer performers to bring it off and you need a different kind of production to the one Jonathan Church offers here.

In fairness to the three leads at Chichester they can sing the songs and dance the dances, but somehow they just don't have that certain unique quality, that eye-catching, mesmerising something which characterises the best performances. Scarlett Strallen as Kathy Selden comes closest to finding this but is still not as good as she was in the Chichester Music Man. The other two leads are some way off. Adam Cooper (Don Lockwood) is supposed to be a premier movie star but I wasn't convinced, and the chemistry between him and Strallen is not there. Daniel Crossley (Cosmo Brown) has probably the hardest task because Donald O'Connor in the film has such personality, and he falls short. His diction was muddy – possibly it was where I was sitting but most of the words of “Make 'em Laugh” didn't come through – and he just didn't hold my attention. Further, there needs to be more distinction in characterisation between Don and Cosmo for the relationship to work and that distinction was missing.

But I don't lay all responsibility on the performers. The production seems to have been pretty painstakingly modeled on the film. It looks glorious, don't get me wrong. The rain is a technical feat of distinction, and there are other nice little touches like the publicity banner behind the tiny aeroplane that chugs across the lighting rig in the opening scene. Costumes, dry ice, elaborate sets – no expense has been spared. But the trouble is you could have almost exactly the same experience (with the exception of being spared any danger of getting a spray of water in your face) in front of the television screen watching the original movie – and the original movie has the heart which despite the high production values has somewhere got lost from this adaptation. My root problem was, as the show went on, that I could not see the artistic point of adapting this film into a stage musical – it doesn't seem to me to add anything to the experience beyond the technical effects – and technical effects do not alone make a great film or stage experience.

Clearly, as seems to be frequently the case at present, I am in a minority on this one. The show was well sold and there is even now talk of a West End transfer next year. According to one review it has even been getting some standing ovations. But to my mind it is not a patch on the Chichester productions of Babes in Arms and The Music Man.

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