Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
Also see Eddie's review of The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler
The Betty Comden/Adolph Green authored story (with music by Nacio Herb Brown and lyrics by Arthur Freed) first came to the stage largely intact in a 1983 London opening, followed by a New York bow in 1985. A promised 2017 revival on the Great White Way is still supposedly awaiting an available theatre, but in the meantime, Bay Area audiences have the opportunity to revel in the familiar scenes on the Broadway by the Bay stage in Redwood City, with the memories recreated, even including a full-blown rainstorm for the much-anticipated title number.
As most audience members may know, the scene is 1927 Hollywood on the cusp of silent movies dying a sudden and quick death with the premiere of The Jazz Singer, the first movie with sound. Silent star duo (and supposed couple heading soon into nuptials) Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont as well as their riding-high studio, Monumental Pictures, are suddenly potential Model T's in a world of snazzy coupe models. Their futures and that of the R.F. Simpson, the studio's movie mogul, are in dire jeopardy. That is especially true because starlet Lina has a voice akin to a cartoon character. Don, who in no way loves Lina the way the Hollywood rags thinks he does, has met on a park bench an aspiring actress named Kathy Seldon; and even though their first sparks are a bit caustic, the flames within for each other have been ignited. When the studio decides an upcoming silent movie needs to become a full-blown musical, Don and his boyhood chum Cosmo Brown convince R.F. and Kathy to dub her beautiful spoken and sung vocals for those of Linahopefully without the hot-blooded, highly jealous, and ego-inflated Lina having a clue until the movie opens. As everyone knows, Lina does find out, and the real fun of the movie, now stage show, really begins.
Broadway by the Bay has a great reputation when it comes to staging classic musicals, bringing large, local casts and orchestras together to wow Peninsula and beyond audiences. Unfortunately, this production of is more of a mixed bag than their usual outings. However, there are still memorable moments and aspects where it is all sunshine for Singin' in the Rain.
Chief among these brighter spots is most of the choreography (designed by Robyn Tribuzi), especially whenever the large cast of 25+ or any of its principals decide to put on their tap shoes. As Don, Ryan Blanning reincarnates enough of Gene Kelly's smooth pizzazz to receive high kudos in the ease that he taps, glides, soft shoes, and generally danceswhether on the flat floor or on steps, chairs or tables. In the climactic rainstorm to end act one, his Don splashes delightfully through the iconic title song, going toe and heel, swinging around lampposts, and tripping the light fantastic while merrily tapping away.
When Don is joined by his pal Cosmo (Randy O'Hara) in numbers like "Fit as a Fiddle" and "Moses Supposes," the two are a perfectly paired comedy and sond & dance duo, tapping wildly in synchronized moves involving not only feet, but seemingly every other part of their bodies in constant, rapid motion. The synergy between the two is contagious and brings the audience to life with appreciated applause.
Mr. O'Hara himself is actually the all-around cast standout for his natural comic appeal, an attractive singing voice, and his own outstanding dance abilities. The hilarity of his solo, "Make 'Em Laugh," is an evening highlight as he sings and has a number of clownish encounters with backstage wooden planks.
While Lina's star is falling on the silver screen as the musical progresses, as Lina Lamont, Jen Brooks' only gets stronger and stronger as she uses her squeaky, scratchy, high-pitched (think helium-enhanced sounds) voice to bring the house down when she sings (well, not exactly sings, maybe squawks) "What's Wrong with Me?" Ms. Brooks' overall comic abilities as the platinum-blonde idol of the silent screen (whom no one has ever actually every heard speak a word) are masterful for the role of Lina. Chrissy Brooks, as Lina's equally high-pitched, rather ditzy, and conniving pal Zelda Zanders, also makes good use of her few minutes on stage to leave a fun impression.
A solid, singing performance is given by Amanda Farbstein as Kathy Selden, whose voice suffices nicely in numbers like "Lucky Star." She, too, particularly shines when she puts on the dancing shoes. She is a great partner, both when gliding around with Don or when part of the perky trio for "Good Morning" with Don and Cosmoa number in which the rapidity and exactness of their three sets of tapping feet brings big applause.
Much of the evening's fun comes from the 1920s outfits the cast get to wear, ranging from flapper fringes to knickers to evening gowns as seen in the Hollywood clips of old. Congrats to Leandra Watson for scoring a hit with her scores of costume wonders. The scenic design of Kelly James Tighe is also worthy of mention, from the big, carved backdrop of Hollywood Hills and mammoth palm trees to many small set pieces that give us the full, movie studio effect (along with dozens of movie dressing room and backlot properties designed by Eric Daniel Johnson).
So, with all these positives, what are the dark clouds within this production? Chief among them, unfortunately, is Mr. Blanning's inability to deliver Don Lockwood's numbers that require him to sing. From the first phrase of his opening song, there is a noticeable wavering and a proneness to go a bit flat on the sustained notes of his vocalsa tendency that becomes more and more disappointing number after number. As wonderful as his dancing is for "Singin' in the Rain," the dazzling effect is almost negated by the singing. Because Don is called on to sing in eight of the twelve numbers that are not full company ones, it becomes more noticeable. Where he does a better job is when paired with Mr. O'Hara (Cosmo), employing a more comic approach to his singing.
There is also something about the direction and/or script of the production that makes especially the ninety-minute first half seem at times to move at a snail's pace. Energy is particularly lost when the live action turns to movie clips (sequences filmed in nearby mansion and former home of early motion picture pioneer Leon Douglas). Those three clips go on a bit too long, and at least one (a movie scene where Kathy dubs for Lina) might have been much stronger if done as a live, on-stage sequence.
But in the end, it is the dancing in the rain and the sight and sound of wildly tapping feet that I believe most audience members are going to remember from Broadway by the Bay's Singin' in the Rain. And with that, I believe most will leave agreeing with the final lines of the full company as they sing in yellow slickers and with twirling umbrellas:
"I've a smile on my face.
Singin' in the Rain continues through November 19, 2017, at at the Fox Theatre, 2215 Broadway, Redwood City CA. Tickets are available at www.broadwaybythebay.org.