Singin' in the Rain

Can the iconic musical movie transfer to the stage? Umbrellas at the ready at the Grand Opera House

The 1952 musical comedy film Singin’ in the Rain – with lyrics by Arthur Freed and music by Nacio Herb Brown – is not, at first look, a particularly strong candidate for a musical theatre makeover.

For a start, it is firmly rooted in the history and technology of motion pictures, with a storyline about that industry’s monumental transition from silent films to ‘talkies’. Then there is the small matter of the rain. How could it ever be possible to reproduce on stage the iconic scene in which Gene Kelly dances his way along a city street in an absolute downpour?

And yet, this current West End touring production delivers on all fronts, integrating motion picture graphics and projections and that famous rain scene into an evening of musical theatre that perfectly combines the lasting appeal of the original film with the magic of live theatre.

The action essentially takes place in front of a generic backdrop that morphs into an urban 1920s street, a film set or the backstage/front stage area of a theatre. Rolling set pieces are added or subtracted to create the look of each scene, involving everything from a plain park bench to a stylised aircraft for a bevy of wing-walking dancing girls.

Almost as soon as the band begins the overture, the stage is alive with characters depicting the hustle and bustle of a silent film set. They move costumes, props and scenery around and fall in and out of dance routines as if no one in the Singin’ in the Rain universe ever gets from one place to another by simply walking.

The story revolves around silent film stars Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont, who are attempting to make their way in the world of ‘talking pictures’ at the behest of studio boss, RF Simpson. Chorus girl Kathy Seldon becomes Don’s love interest, after initially resisting his movie-star charm, while Don’s piano-playing sidekick Cosmo Brown provides laughs and knowing commentary.

The crux of the matter is that Lina has a voice that would strip paint, and an accent that in Norn Iron speak is ‘common as muck’. Her transformation into an all-singing film actress is simply not possible, until Cosmo comes up with the idea of Kathy dubbing her voice for the film.

The plot provides opportunities for comic turns and lots of dancing. The funniest moments come from juxtapositions of Lina (played with relentlessly nasal intonation and spot on comic timing by Vicky Binns) on film, either trying to sound posh with her awful voice, or plausibly dubbed until the soundtrack comes unstuck from the moving images.

The dancing throughout is wonderful, with crisp attack and snappy angles part of Andrew Wright's overall choreographic language. The strongest overall performances come from Stephane Anelli as Cosmo and Amy Ellen Richardson as Kathy, both good singers and confident movers.

James Leece as Don Lockwood, meanwhile, is a smooth dancer, but delivers lines with a somewhat wooden, über-theatrical tone, possibly the result of a constant struggle with the requisite flat American accent.

The ten-piece ensemble orchestra bring a rhythmic punch, tonal blend and stylistic flair for the iconic score, which features well-known songs like 'Make 'em Laugh' and 'Moses Supposes'.

The musicians are on top of things throughout – quite literally, in fact. They play from a raised platform centred above the stage, ever-present and blending into the scenery like the rain, which eventually falls copiously – all 7,000 litres of it – then magically disappears into the floor of the Grand Opera House stage.

As much as anything, it is the overall look and mechanical genius of this production that sets it apart from the average touring musical. I suspect some patrons in the front row get a little wet, as first Don and later the entire cast dance with gusto to the title track. I also suspect they don’t mind at all.

Singin’ in the Rain runs at the Grand Opera House, Belfast until May 17.