Screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed.
At the Palace Theatre, London.
Booking to December 22, 2012.
Ex Royal Ballet star turned musical hoofer Adam Cooper and genuine hoofer Scarlett Strallen shine in this recreation of the movie classic but it begs the question, why keep going back to the movies?
Originally staged at Chichester last summer, this is another vehicle for Cooper and yes, he can sing. Strallen makes you forget Debbie Reynolds and stealing the show whenever she is on, is Katherine Kingsley as the hilarious silent star, with the Brooklyn twang, Lina Lamont.
In supporting roles there’s the world of tv past. Sandra Dickinson is solid doubling as the dialect coach Miss Dunsmore and as the Hedda Hopper character Dora Bailey and American star, but now London resident, Michael Brandon, is suitably brash as the studio boss. Comden and Green’s story is a perfect satire of movie making set in the early days of sound and it’s a wonderful complement to The Artist, which is currently wowing them in cinemas.
Whomever you cast they still have the impossible task of trying to banish memories of what is probably the most perfect movie musical ever made. Daniel Crossley has the rubbery bonhomie required for the sidekick part of Cosmo Brown but that was written for and perfected by Donald O’Connor and so is an impossible ask to an actor. While we can forgive producers for betting on a sure thing with this material and you can understand the passion of an artist like Cooper to recreate these great musical numbers, which he loves, you are still starting off at a disadvantage.
Cooper, who is underpowered when he isn’t dancing, has perfect feline grace and what he may lack in the singing department he more than makes up for with his dancing. Strallen however is the perfect triple threat – she sings, she acts, she dances and all to perfection and she is truly one of the wonders of today’s West End stage. She doesn’t try to do Debbie Reynolds as she doesn’t have to and she has the poise and presence to make her own mark on the role. Her comedy shtick in All I Do with the Girls of the Coconut Grove is a joy. The director Jonathan Church lovingly polishes each musical number and the ensemble gives it everything, yet somehow it all doesn’t ring true.
The title number gives the game away. Here they don’t skimp on the rain and as a soaked Cooper carefully aims his splashes with a wonderfully feigned nonchalance, his audience isn’t for a second caught up in the transcendence of that famous moment, instead they’re all worried about getting wet and shift uncomfortably in their seats. Cinema is safely behind a screen and you can press pause, theatre is messy.
In the end this production is a facsimile of a show rather than the real thing. It slavishly recreates every moment and because people know what is coming next, the humour isn’t organic and so they don’t laugh. Even Kingsley delivering such eternal lines as Lina’s about being betrothed to a Count and she “cain’t stand him”, leave’s the audience stony faced.
Simply put, for it to work, this show needs re-invention so the audience can be surprised and startled by something theatrical rather than lulled into a stupor by the familiar. If I were Cooper I’d aim one of those arcs of water directly at front row centre.