What a glorious feeling it is to watch Singin’ in the Rain tap and splash its way across Milton Keynes Theatre’s freshly flooded stage.
Singin’ in the Rain showers audiences with plenty of uplifting song and dance numbers but that classic sequence from the beloved 1952 MGM movie has got to be one of my absolute favourites. The film starred the late Gene Kelly, a Hollywood legend whose energetic, athletic dancing style and suave good looks make him a hard act to follow.
Happily, director Jonathan Church and choreographer Andrew Wright ensure a superbly staged production and this routine in particular is met with rapturous applause. Royal Ballet School trained James Leece makes the role of silent movie matinee idol Don Lockwood his own – with a sprinkling of Kelly-esque mannerisms. He buoyantly bounds through the downpour, dashing from puddle to puddle and kicking sweeping sprays of water into the first three rows of the stalls.
This wonderfully wet and jubilant moment closes the first act (providing time for those who have been doused with a deluge of water to dry off) and leaves everyone grinning from ear to ear. The set design uses half a mile of flexible pipe-work and a ten-tonne water tank. This system makes a surge of water fall from above, while also pushing water up from below the stage, creating the spectacle of torrential rain.
Of course, there is much more to this marvellous musical than the incredible 12,000 litres of water used here, and during the vibrant, umbrella-twirling finale. Charm, romance and comedy infuse the whole show and all the unforgettable songs are performed with pizzazz.
The narrative is set in Hollywood in 1927 and wittily satirises the panic surrounding the troubling transitional period from silent movies to ‘talkies’. Dashing Don Lockwood and his glamorous blonde screen partner Lina Lamont are Tinseltown’s ‘golden couple’. Churning out hit movies for Monumental Pictures, they are expected to pretend to be romantically involved with each other in real life too.
Unfortunately, temperamental, screechy-voiced Lina (hilariously portrayed by Coronation Street favourite Vicky Binns) has come to believe the media hype and is convinced a wedding is on the cards. This notion could not be further from the truth as Don (James Leece) grits his teeth and does everything he can to avoid his narcissistic co-star.
As the premiere of their latest cinematic offering, The Duelling Cavalier, approaches, rival studio Warner Brothers releases The Jazz Singer, the world’s first talking motion picture. Suddenly, swashbuckling romance and visual comedy is not enough to satisfy audiences.
Monumental Pictures studio boss R F Simpson (theatre and television regular Maxwell Caulfield) quickly realises he needs to embrace the sound revolution. He decides a more realistic drama, with a well-written, spoken script is required. But, as Don’s ex-song-and-dance-partner Cosmo Brown (Stephane Anelli) observes, Lina’s shrill New York accent is liable to make audiences long for a return to the silent movie era.
A more likely candidate for stardom in talking pictures is aspiring actress – and Don’s romantic interest – Kathy Selden (Amy Ellen Richardson). Eloquent Kathy is appreciative of Shakespearean theatre and initially disparaging of Don’s mute flicks (“If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all”). Still, their chance meeting soon develops into a burgeoning friendship. Throw in some dreamy dancing and Richardson’s elegant Kathy is soon swept off her feet by Leece’s charismatic Don.
Projection screens are used onstage to show crackly, black and white – and uproarious – footage from Don and Lina’s movies. When sound and picture lose synchronisation, the whole auditorium is in fits of laughter. In an inspired bid to save the studio’s reputation, Cosmo proposes to turn the doomed film into a musical (The Dancing Cavalier) and suggests that Kathy dub in her singing voice behind the scenes for a lip-synching Lina. But whose career will flourish?
The tale is light-hearted yet, set amid the dramatic upheavals of the fledgling movie industry, it retains pace and an inventive edge. Those stunning 1920s costumes add depth, colour and glamour too.
As befits such a celebrated musical, the singing is impeccable and the cast deliver faultlessly executed, high-energy choreography. Leece, Anelli and Richardson shine as the central trio (Don, Cosmo and Kathy) in the cheerfully exuberant ‘Good Morning’. The slapstick ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ illustrates Anelli’s sunny personality and spot-on comic timing; his speedy tricks make for a breathtaking number.
Tongue-twisting, toe-tapping ‘Moses Supposes’ is a delight. The number sees Leece and Anelli jazz up a very dry elocution lesson by enticing the dialect coach into a quirky song and dance routine. They tear up the stage with all the frantic flair I love in the film. Indeed, this production manages to be respectfully reminiscent of the classic film – capturing the essence of original stars Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds – while bringing the dazzling dance numbers up-to-date for a contemporary audience.
Without a doubt, the magic of Singin’ in the Rain lives on. Prepare to be drenched in the feel-good factor with this infectiously joyous show!
Singin’ in the Rain continues at Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 12 July 2014.
Update 13 April 2022: Read my review of Singin’ in the Rain at Milton Keynes Theatre, April 2022
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.