Saturday, September 30, 2006

opening-night review of *Singin' in the Rain*

at Spokane Civic Theatre through Oct. 29

It’s the finest movie musical of all time. Why should any theater, much less a nonprofessional theater, take on the challenge of attempting to produce *Singin’ in the Rain*? We’ve all got dreams of Gene Kelly (wet) and Donald O’Connor (wacky) imprinted in our collective memory. Going up against near-perfection: It’s a losing proposition.
Isn’t it? No. Three reasons: Cameron Lewis throwing around his rubber limbs in “Make ‘em Laugh.” Alyssa Calder-Day stepping up to the mike and selling the romance of “You Are My Lucky Star.” Lewis and Calder-Day joining Andrew Ware Lewis in the tap-leap-glide of “Good Morning” — a threesome dancing their hearts out, flopping joyously onto a couch, looking like they were actually having fun up there.
Live theater has the element of risk that make its triumphs that much more impressive: The singer who has to hit that note right now; the three people tapping in sync, taking it to the limit but flirting with pratfalls; the choreographed comic stunt that’s gotta be right and gotta be now. Back in 1951, they took six months (and lots of multiple takes) to film Singin’ in the Rain. Not only did they have a safety net, they lacked the immediacy of an audience chuckling, gasping, applauding.
So the attempt is worth it; unfortunately, the result, in Kathie Doyle-Lipe’s production of the musical’s stage version, is uneven. Among this show’s lead actors, technical elements and individual numbers, there are both triumphs and mediocrities.
But more triumphs. Foremost among them: Cameron Lewis in the Donald O’Connor role of the goofy sidekick, Cosmo Brown. Lewis — he’s Pee-Wee Herman with a deep voice and rubber limbs — has mastered the arch remark served with a side of sarcasm and a goofy dance kick. His version of “Make ‘em Laugh” won’t make anybody forget Donald O’Connor — but who could? Lewis dons a Viking helmet, spills out of a cart, splits a seam or two, performs a frantic Russian dance, throws himself around like a rag doll, loses a fight with a dummy, pirouettes in and out of control, convinces us that one of his legs has a mind of its own, and … it’s exhausting just watching him. Combine all that with tapping and singing, smirks and one-liners, and you’ve got the evening’s best performance.
Calder-Day invested “You Are My Lucky Star” with genuine feeling, and her dancing, especially in “Good Morning,” is delightful. She’s capable of projecting that girl-next-door quality.
Her efforts are accompanied by this show’s many other delights. Dougie Dawson combines cigar-chomping, skittery feet and a hunched-over, side-mouth cackles to create a memorable portrait of the dim-wit studio head. Doyle-Lipe keeps the stage busy with extras. In a scene involving multiple takes with a prickly film star, Tom Heppler adds a note of comic exasperation as the director. Susan Berger and Jan Wanless do their usual great job with costumes, especially at the high end of the elegance scale: an ice cream suit for the movie heartthrob, various mink stoles, a mustard-yellow, sequined gown for the dumb-blonde actress. And in a number called “You Were Meant for Me” which calls for the hero to dazzle his girl with all the special effects on a movie set, technical director Peter Hardie pulls off spotlights, mist and moonlight.
The buzz on this show was the multimedia angle, that Hardie was going to pull off, not only multiple sets and the wherewithal for big tap numbers, but even old-timey motion pictures and actual rain right there on the Civic’s Main Stage.
The movies are successful; the rain, less so. Here’s why: The movies, because they’re spoofs of all the ham acting in the old silent films, are amusing because they call attention to their own limitations. The rain, trying hard to impress us, undermines the musical number it’s supposed to support. In a movie, we expect rain — that’s what studios do. But in a live production, it’s an event. Which is the problem: the rain itself becomes the focus. The Gene Kelly character doesn’t care about getting wet because he just left his girl and he’s falling in love. It’s an exuberant, devil-may-care love song.
But the rain spatters hard, and Ware Lewis stains to be heard; pretty soon, the title song becomes a stunt to be gotten through instead of a love song to be savored.
In Ware Lewis’ defense, it takes courage just to get up and swing around that lamppost (and not only because, in this production, it’s a scary-wobbly lamppost): He’s imitating an icon of American cinema. But they sacrificed emotion to logistics on this one, folks: How it got done took precedence over the scene’s emotional substance.
The silent-film spoofs, in contrast, were marvelous: hammy expressions, jerky swordfights inside our own Masonic Temple, and success at the complicated business of roughening up the footage when the plot calls for unsynched sound and other technical glitches. In the film sequences, the comedy served the play: Don and Lina really do look silly up there acting silently in a world that’s gone talkie.
*Singin’ in the Rain* isn’t remembered for the strength of its plot (aside, perhaps, from the way the Lina’s awful voice is handled as a device). The plot — a love triangle-plus-goofy-sidekick arrangement set just when the talkies were taking over from silent movies — is literally a pastiche, thrown together as a means of patching together a bunch of songs taken from any number of Depression-era musicals.
*Singin’*, moreover, presents large swaths of unmemorable singin’: Of the dozen songs listed the program, I don’t remember three of them. At all. And I’m writing this an hour after the show ended, and I took notes.
There are other problems as well. A second-act recording-studio sequence (dubbing over Lina’s awful voice with Kathy’s pleasant one) seem belabored. A half-century ago, in the movie, the details of how dubbing is accomplished may have seemed novel; today, they’re common knowledge.
With all the uncooperative props and flown-in effects that seemed to have minds of their own in this show — and with all the scuffling-about onstage and some lengthy set changes — it became evident that a musical of this magnitude was taxing the limits of what the Civic is capable of doing. The seams showed.
As Lina Lamont, the silent-film star with a voice … not fit for talkies, Corinne Logarbo isn’t nearly squeaky enough at her first vocal entrance. Logarbo comes into her own in the second act’s “What’s Wrong With Me?” — flaunting her charms flirtatiously and in general taking her characterization nearly over the top. It’s a climb she should have made in the first act. When the shock of Lina’s screech-voice and sheer stupidity needs to be felt most, Logarbo didn’t bring enough energy to the role.
As Don Lockwood (the Gene Kelly role), Ware Lewis generally dances better than he sings, and sings better than he acts. In the tap duets and trios, it’s Ware Lewis that your eyes go to: His feet glide, his arms undulate, he’s under control and a pleasure to watch. He can deliver a convincing love song, even if his voice faltered in the lower register during the reprise of “You Were Meant for Me.” During the silliness of “Moses Supposes,” however, Ware Lewis’ face took on a blank affect — a kind of pasted-on smile perched atop a lithe and graceful dancer’s body. His gee-whiz reception of the first mention of the over-dubbing idea was flat — where his two companions seemed excited by the idea, Ware Lewis overdid the straight-man routines.
With up-and-down moments like those, the leading quartet of actor-singer-dancers in this show was made seriously uneven. Now, “uneven” is an easy word to throw around: Nearly every show has strong points and weaknesses. But the disparities are glaring here. On the one hand, things like Ware Lewis’ tap-dancing, Lewis’ physical comedy, Calder-Day’s lyrical tone were all standouts. On the other hand, the flatness of some of the joke-deliveries, along with the flaccidness of the big tap numbers and the colored-umbrellas finale, were eye-rollingly bad.
The Civic’s *Singin’ in the Rain* is an uneven show.


At September 30, 2006 9:37 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not Peter Hardie's set. Newcomer David Baker was lead designer on the set, lighting and tech work. Please double check your facts before you write your review for the Inlander, Bobo. Thanks.

At October 02, 2006 5:38 AM , Blogger Bobo the Theater Ho said...

Thanks, Marcia. As mentioned in the program on p. 27, David Baker designed the set and lights for *Singin'.*
Those hilarious film sequences were directed by Kathie Doyle-Lipe and shot and edited by Phillip Sondericker of KDK-1 (who also did such a great job creating the Civic's "60 Years" video).

At October 02, 2006 6:06 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bobo , it doesn't matter if it's page 10,27 or 40 as a journalist and out of respect for the designer's work good or bad one should take the time to check their facts.Everyone makes errors but not knowing who the scenic designer is ,is a rather large one for a reveiwer.

At October 03, 2006 5:23 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought all three leads were wonderful the tech was unfortunate.

At October 03, 2006 5:24 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bobo you should know who to blame and for what by now.

At October 03, 2006 5:26 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Could someone please mention the choreography?

At October 03, 2006 7:16 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Clean,inspired and creative choreography.The work of the cast really showed!Thankyou for the professional work ethic.

At October 06, 2006 11:31 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, I agree.

At October 09, 2006 8:18 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good thing: Reviews are only one person's opinion.

Bad Thing: It's printed for the public to read. It's normally assumed by the reader that the writer knows what they're writing about.

Check your facts. I know enough about the paper to not blame you for spelling errors. I blame the proof-reader.

Spokane needs someone with theatre experience to theatre reviews.

At October 09, 2006 8:20 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good thing: Reviews are only one person's opinion.

Bad Thing: It's printed for the public to read. It's normally assumed by the reader that the writer knows what they're writing about.

Check your facts. I know enough about the paper to not blame you for spelling errors. I blame the proof-reader.

Spokane needs someone with theatre experience to theatre reviews.

At October 09, 2006 10:13 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Every theatre in the nation has had bad reviews and will continue to get them in the future. It is a fact of life. Not all productions are gems. Deal with it, learn from it, move on.

At October 10, 2006 3:46 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Learn from what? R U kidding!

At October 10, 2006 8:00 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can accept the opinion of the reviewer
even if I don't always agree with every aspect of it.What bothers me is not checking on the names of the people involved with the creative process of putting a show together.It really borders on disrespectful and this reviewer has made this mistake more then once.I suggest he check out the guidelines to writing a review.You can find them in many college textbooks on writing.Time to check yourself Bobo.

At October 11, 2006 9:31 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

You can learn from criticism on what may need to be improved or worked on or you can simply get bent out of shape. It is all on your perception and how you choose to deal with it - positively or negatively.

At October 11, 2006 9:33 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Learn to only pay attention to reviewers who take the time to get their facts straight, who don't have a predisposition to dislike musicals, and who don't have an unswerving conviction that everything the "professionals" do is wonderful.

At October 11, 2006 12:53 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, Bobo, didn't mean to get you in trouble with everyone.

At October 11, 2006 4:36 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are a few who like to make things bigger than they really are instead of focusing on the real issue. Berate, belittle, and put others down.

At October 17, 2006 4:27 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

To learn,you have to respect the opinion of the critic.

At October 19, 2006 12:35 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the show must be vastly improved since this opening night review. It was great! I thought the review was fair and respectful but I know that shows improve during the run.

At October 24, 2006 4:34 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hear it is a sellout!

At October 31, 2006 11:34 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great run guys,Congrats!


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