Fort Worth — Stolen Shakespeare Guild, a Fort Worth company devoted to productions of theatrical masterpieces, has, since its founding in 2005, given area audiences live productions of Shakespeare, Wilde, and Williams, as well as dramatic versions of Austen and Dante. Along with productions of that ilk, the company has also developed a worthy tradition of presenting intimate versions of musicals.
This second of the summer musicals, currently onstage at Sanders Theatre in at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center, is Singin’ in the Rain, a musical that started out in 1952 as a movie (written by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, with lyrics by Arthur Freed and music by Nacio Herb Brown) before becoming a stage production originating in London’s West End 30 years later, shortly after which it arrived on Broadway.
Singin’ in the Rain may well be the greatest movie musical of all time. Catchy tunes, incredible choreography, polished cinematography, and a deftly satirical script make it a movie worth watching half a century after it first made the round of America’s movie theaters—back when going to the movies was still a ritual of American life. Although there’s much to praise in the movie, the dance numbers by Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor—including Kelly’s famous “Singin’ in the Rain” number—provide the most memorable moments.
Having made a quick study of the movie version a few days earlier, I arrived at the theater on a hot Saturday afternoon curious to see how the company would squeeze that widescreen movie into the confines of a small theater.
I was likewise curious as to how much the company and director could make of the oft overlooked sociological element in the Singin’ in the Rain—probably unconscious on the part of the movie’s creators, but still very real.
For, although Singin’ in the Rain centers around a rehash of the old boy-meets-girl-etc. plot, with a few inevitable twists and mishaps thrown in, the driving force in the story is the demise of silent movies and the rise of the talkies in 1927. The movie Singin’ in the Rain was created a quarter of a century after the crisis of the rise of the talkies, and definitely reflects a new Hollywood anxiety of the time: the rise of home television.
All of this resonates as much as ever in 2016, when all of us have observed and experienced the rise and fall of numerous technologies, and most of us have faced the sometimes anxiety-inducing aspects of new technology and its effects on our own careers and livelihoods.
In some ways, the meatiest role in the show belongs to Lina, the comically evil silent film star with a screechy voice, here played winningly by Emmie Kivell. Lina believes her own publicity and doesn’t begin to fathom the danger lurking for her in the new sound technology; she also wants desperately to be loved. While, in the 1952 film version, Jean Hagen played the role masterfully but without nuance, stage versions through the years have sought to give her role a little more depth, most notably with the song “What’s the Matter with Me,” created for a stage version produced in England in 2012. Included here, the song provides a little more opportunity for the audience to empathize with Lina and lots of opportunity for Kivell to show off her comical and choreographic talents. In the context of a company such as Stolen Shakespeare Guild, with its lofty ambitions, even more might have been made of Lina’s dilemma—for instance, maybe just a glimpse of her reaction to the triumph of talkies and her own inevitable ruin.
As the female romantic lead Kathy (a role taken by Debbie Reynolds in the movie), Ally Van Deuren delivers a smooth performance, with a lovely voice in the Rosemary Clooney tradition. As the male romantic lead Don, Jarred Kyle has ample presence. Tyler Jeffrey Adams in the Donald O’Connor role of Don’s sidekick Cosmo hams appropriately, amping up the character with a hint of gay. The female chorus line is, well, competent, but definitely for local consumption only.
Nathan Dibben directs, and sets by Dibben and Lauren Morgan convincingly distill the spectacle into a small place, including the miniature movies within the play, in which the characters are introduced, with much skepticism, to the concept of the “talking picture.” However, the flashback sequence in the opening section is a bit unclear, and the climactic moment in which Lina is publicly dethroned is downright pale, lacking the drama of the rising curtain that makes the scene succeed so well in the movie version.
Canned accompaniment blends well with the voices in the string of wonderful songs (including the enduring hits “You Are My Lucky Star,” “Good Morning,” “Make ‘em Laugh,” and, of course, the title number), and the natural sound of the singers works well in this space. This listener couldn’t help wondering if live accompaniment—maybe a good piano with a trap set, and a bass, or something along those lines—might not have made for an even more intense theatrical experience, with the interplay of live musicians and singers as part of the experience.
On the whole, Stolen Shakespeare Guild’s production of Singin’ in the Rain—there is no water onstage, the rain is done through lighting and sound design—is a fine pastime for a summer evening or weekend afternoon, bringing to life a work that entertains and nudgingly portrays the ongoing perpetual motion of American culture, with its intertwined advantages and dangers.