Singin’ in the Rain – Review by Brooks Appelbaum

Summer Theatre of New Canaan has taken the famous song, “Make ‘Em Laugh” to heart in choosing “Singin’ in the Rain” as its July 2017 summer production. Following last year’s critically acclaimed and remarkable “West Side Story,” “Singin’ in the Rain” is the lightest of entertainments. However, you can’t argue with success (this one is selling out, so reserve your tickets now, as the last performance is Sunday, July 30), nor can you argue with the energy, wit, and sheer fun that director Melody Meitrott Libonati, with her diamond-sharp cast, infuses into the show. An excellent orchestra, led by Kenneth Gartmen and Marissa Levy, and a crackerjack design team make this worth a drive from anywhere in Connecticut.

The great Betty Comden and Adolph Green, screenwriters for the 1952 movie, adapted their screenplay to the stage, and the musical, with its beloved songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, premiered in London in 1983 and on Broadway in 1985. As in the film, the plot is a humorous take on a troubled time in Hollywood: the transition, in the late 1920’s, from silent pictures to “the talkies.” Don Lockwood, our hero (the winning Matthew Tiberi) has long enjoyed a successful career teamed up with the beautiful Lina Lamont (Jodi Stevens) in such silent films as the “The Royal Rascals,” a historical romance. One problem is already in place when we meet these two at the premiere: fusing publicity buzz with her own fantasies, Lina thinks of herself as Don’s fiancée, while Don has no interest in Lina, other than a financial one. A second problem involves finances for everybody: after “The Jazz Singer” is a hit, Don and Lina’s studio must also start making talking films. Fine enough: but Lina’s voice could compete with a Brooklyn-bound freight whistle. Coached to say a line in the new talking movie, “The Dueling Cavalier,” the rounded notes of “I caaaaahnt staaahnd him” become a screeched “I ceeeant stanum.” What to do?

Fortunately, Don’s great friend and vaudeville pal from childhood, Cosmo (a fabulous David Rossetti) has a solution, and fortunately, too, the solution involves a young actor/singer/dancer, Kathy Selden (Annabelle Fox), whom Don has met by chance and has fallen in love with. So what could go wrong? Well, many comical complications ensue before the inevitable happy ending, but the keynote here is “comical.”

Since the movie stars Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and a very young Debbie Reynolds and since it contains some of the most iconic musical scenes ever filmed, one of the main challenges for any director is to banish (at least temporarily) those images from the audience’s mind.  Here, Libonati succeeds wonderfully where the set pieces scenes are concerned, and almost as well in her casting, especially with Tiberi as Lockwood and Rossetti as Cosmo Brown.

Tiberi has the face of a young Dirk Bogarde, and he wins the audience’s sympathy with ease: his Don is believably warm-hearted, quick to worry, and filled with ardor when he meets the right girl. In addition, Tiberi’s voice is velvety, and his dancing a joy to watch.

He makes the perfect foil for Rossetti, who has a clown’s rubbery body and face, and who creates a Cosmo that, in wit, optimism, and sheer fun, is the ideal pal. Rossetti’s version of the tour do force “Make ‘Em Laugh” is remarkable, and the stage shines a bit brighter whenever he appears.

As Kathy Selden, Annabelle Fox greatly resembles the youthful Debbie Reynolds—which is not in the least a requirement; it’s simply, I assume, a directorial homage to the film—and she has a lovely voice and dances beautifully. However, I wish Libonati had coached her to relax into the role a bit more: her smile, while dancing, looks forced, and while she is plenty tough when she needs to be, she only sporadically exhibits the soft side required for the role.

I wish, too, that Libonati had directed the great Jodi Stevens, as Lina, to tone down her voice and her manner. In MTC’s recent production of “Gypsy,” Stevens played a plain-Jane secretary and the best Mazeppa I’ve ever witnessed, among numerous productions of the show. Thus, I know she can do anything. Here, though, she has been directed to be a cartoon rather than a woman. Certainly Lina is the most cartoonish of the characters, but she even has a song, “What’s Wrong With Me,” that brings out a bit of vulnerability. Lina stands for the many actors and actresses whose careers were destroyed by the talkies; as such, a touch of poignancy is appropriate and wouldn’t mar the broad comedy written into the role.

Other featured actors are spot-on, especially Mike Boland as RF Simpson, studio head; Omen Sade as the Male Diction Coach, who becomes the startled catalyst for “Moses Supposes”; and Christopher Brian Williams as the “Production Tenor” who makes “Beautiful Girl” a song to remember.

Doug Shankman’s choreography is a wonder: he uses the small stage in such ingenious ways that one only registers its size when the space is empty. And the ensemble dancers have grace and remarkable energy, led by Dance Captain Rachel Maclsaac and Featured Dancer (the Cyd Charisse role in the film), Kelly Loughran.

Every technical element, too, adds to the general joy and sense of total professionalism. Charles Pavarini III has created scenes that flow easily into one another; Devon Allen’s lighting creates lovely effects throughout; the costumes, by Robert Fletcher, tell a clear story; and the sound, by Ian Loftis, is perfectly clear.

In the tradition of Summer Theatre of New Canaan, this is an expert production, and by the end of the evening, any doubts I had about seeing a stage version of the film had vanished. Some movies need to stay on celluloid; this one transfers well to the theater, and watching a plot about the movies unfold on a stage adds an extra dimension to the fun.

For tickets ($30-64) call Summer Theatre of New Canaan, 11 Farm Road, Waveny Park, New Canaan (just off the Merritt, exit 37, behind the high school) at 203-966-4634 or online at www.stonc.org. Performances are Thursday at 8pm, Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 8pm, and Sunday at 4pm. Picnic tables are available for reservation.

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