SOUTH KINGSTOWN, R.I. — A damp summer evening provided a fitting atmosphere for the opening night of the latest production to make a splash at Theatre by the Sea: a stage adaptation of the acclaimed 1952 movie musical, “Singin’ in the Rain.” Matunuck’s barn theater provides a comfortable home for lighthearted and nostalgic summer entertainment, and this new production of an old classic is thoroughly on-brand. This is a story, after all, that asks the audience to laugh at the clouds and the dark sky above and give way to that “glorious feeling.”
The musical is based on the 1952 MGM film, regarded to this day as one of the greatest motion pictures of all time. Adapted by Betty Comden and Adolph Green from their original screenplay, the stage version opened in 1983 in London’s West End before its original Broadway run in the mid-1980s. Because of its connection to the beloved movie, along with good-natured themes and plenty of opportunity for feel-good song, dance, and comedy, the show has enjoyed a number of revivals and touring productions and has become a staple of musical stages around the world. “Singin’ in the Rain” features songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed out of a catalog of standards written in the 1930s for other MGM musical movies, as well as a couple of snappy compositions from Comden and Green (most notably the tongue-twisting second act showstopper, “Moses Supposes”).
The music is bound together by a plot set at the end of Hollywood’s silent film era, a period of transition and change. The story centers on silent screen star Don Lockwood and his leading lady, Lina Lamont, as they try to adapt to the new era of “talkies.” With a grating voice tailor-made for silent movies, on-screen (and rumored off-screen) lover Lina stands in the way of Don’s career, as well as his budding romance with Kathy Selden, an aspiring actress with a golden voice. It is a simple story built around an appealing romance plot. There is plenty of comic relief from Don’s sidekick, Cosmo Brown, as well as Lina Lamont herself. And of course, the iconic Gene Kelly inspired dance numbers feature prominently.
Directed and choreographed by Kelli Barclay, Theatre by the Sea’s production is loyal to the wistful and enthralling spirit of the original film. Barclay knows better than to mess with a classic. Her creation is refreshingly lacking the urgent, over-the-top desire to please which, at times, plagues musical productions at Theatre By the Sea (and elsewhere). If the opening night audience was left with a smile on their faces (and it seemed like they were), it was as much a product of the gentle, off-beat moments where the music and the characters are given room to breathe, as the spectacular song and dance numbers.
There’s plenty of fun to be had, as well. With a dashing, throwback appeal from the golden age of Hollywood, Tim Falter fits like a glove in the leading role of Don Lockwood. While his vocals do not always overwhelm, there is a sweetness which helps sell the romance plot. Falter wows the audience with unflaggingly energetic and graceful dance moves, especially during the centerpiece number, “Singin’ in the Rain.” There’s also great chemistry with love interest Kathy Selden, played by Allsun O’Malley, who breathes life into the ingénue role with convincing wit and independence, as well as a lovely singing voice. O’Malley’s rendition of the love ballad “Would You?” (reprised twice) is a tone-setting highlight of the second act. There is a timeless quality to her singing, as she asks, “he’ll kiss her with a sigh. Would you? Would you? And if the girl were I, Would you? Would you?” It is a portrayal that is hard not to love.
Comic relief moments abound, carried by Sean McGibbon in the role of Cosmo Brown. A master of clown comedy in the style of the Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin, McGibbon shines in a number of showstopping dance numbers, including “Make ‘Em Laugh,” “Good Morning,” and “Broadway Melody (Gotta Dance).” Mychal Phillips gives generously to the role of the antagonist, Lina Lamont, breaking free from the bimbo stereotype in the charmingly comic second act song, “What’s Wrong With Me?”
Technical and design elements are unified in support of the production. Musical director Milton Granger conducts the orchestra and gets a big band sound out of eight musicians. Resident set designer Kyle Dixon’s work stands out, evoking an art deco flair and reproducing some of the film’s iconic visual language. The audience was delighted by the show’s crowning technical achievement, the effect of producing rain on stage, which was flawlessly executed and reprised during the stellar finale.
The special effects were a bonus, however, given the storytelling qualities of Theatre By The Sea’s production. “Singin’ in the Rain” makes a compelling second offering of the 2019 season which will be sure to entice audiences in search of that light-hearted, happy feeling again.