Singin’ in the Rain

Lyric Theatre, July 9

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Grant Almirall as Don Lockwood singin’ and dancin’ in the rain. Photo: Hagen Hopkins.

Based on the beloved 1952 MGM movie, this production of the musical Singin’ in the Rain is largely faithful to the film. You get what you expect but without the excitement of a truly inventive, reimagined staging.

However, there’s no denying the thrill of the joyous, splashy Singin’ in the Rain sequences at the end of Act I and the finale, which take place in heavy showers (12,000 litres of water apparently), dousing people in the front few rows of the stalls (ponchos provided) and sending the audience out on a high.

Directed by Jonathan Church, who left Sydney Theatre Company in May just months after being appointed artistic director, the production originated at the UK’s Chichester Festival in 2011 then transferred to the West End.

Act I is slow to fire. Apparently Church was given little freedom to rework the original screenplay. Simon Higlett’s set is also partly to blame. Set in Hollywood in the late 1920s as the talkies were about to revolutionise the industry, it’s a clever idea to set the show on a Hollywood soundstage. However, the grey walls make for a drab setting that frequently leeches energy despite coloured back lighting (Tim Mitchell) and attractive costuming. It’s not such an issue in Act II where rainbow hues and illuminated signs brighten the stage for the Broadway Ballet.

The black and white footage of the talkie that they are making, shown on a giant screen, is brilliantly done and extremely funny (video design by Ian William Galloway).

Andrew Wright had more leeway to change the choreography, which is always lively and sometimes thrilling as in the tap routines for Moses Supposes and Good Morning, though we miss some of the famous tricks (like the backflip off the wall) in Make ‘Em Laugh.

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Gretel Scarlett, Jack Chambers and Grant Almirall in Good Morning. Photo: Lindsay Kearney

The iconic pas de deux between Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly in the film has been replaced by the girl (a wonderful Nadia Coote with gorgeous leg extensions) partnered by the male ensemble and is beautifully danced (the ensemble dancing is sharp throughout) though it doesn’t have quite the same impact as that gorgeous, sexy duet.

Replacing the injured Adam Garcia as Hollywood heartthrob Don Lockwood, South African performer Grant Almirall is a strong dancer, sings well and understands the period style but he doesn’t exude huge charisma.

As aspiring actor and Don’s love interest, Kathy Selden, Gretel Scarlett dances up a storm, sings sweetly and conveys a warm sincerity in a winning performance. Erika Heynatz is a hoot as Don’s shrill, manipulative co-star Lina Lamont. She does a great job of sustaining Lina’s screechy voice and strangled accent, while the scene in which she tries to act in her first talkie is a comic highlight.

As Don’s sidekick Cosmo Brown, the elastic-limbed Jack Chambers dances superbly and lands the cheesy, vaudevillian shtick, while Rodney Dobson has just the right comic energy as film director Roscoe Dexter.

The 14-piece band, perched high above the stage, is impressive under musical director Adrian Kirk.

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Rodney Dobson and Erika Heynatz. Photo: Jeff Busby

Overall, it’s a polished production with plenty to enjoy. But apart from the stunning rain routines, it just lacks that special something that makes a good production great.

Singin’ in the Rain plays at the Lyric Theatre until September 4. Bookings: www.ticketmaster.com.au

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on July 10

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Grease review

Lucy Maunder as Rizzo leads the cast of Grease. Photo: Jeff Busby

Lucy Maunder as Rizzo leads the cast of Grease. Photo: Jeff Busby

When Grease premiered in 1971, it was a show with attitude that took a rough, raunchy look back at 1950s teenagers and celebrated the music of the era. Over the years, particularly with the advent of the much-loved film, the edges have been knocked off it and it’s become much less gritty.

This latest incarnation, which originated in the UK with direction by David Gilmore and choreography by Arlene Phillips, could do with a bit more of that original grunt.

Restaged by Jason Capewell and Charlotte Bull, the production feels a tad too slick for its own good and somewhat heartless. It needs to trust the moments more and find the truth in them to connect you better with the characters. As it is, you don’t really care about them.

Lucy Maunder’s Rizzo is a notable exception. She really owns the role of the snarky, cynical leader of the Pink Ladies and her moving rendition of There Are Worse Things I Could Do is an emotional and musical highlight.

The production begins, somewhat strangely, with a sing-along of We Go Together led by Miss Lynch (Val Lehman) while the students of Rydell High enter via the auditorium. In my experience, sing-alongs are never terribly popular with audiences at the best of times – let alone at the top of a musical. Here it is forced and awkward.

After that slow start, much of Act I feels a bit flat. Though the cast performs energetically and the show rocks along (almost too frenetically at times) it all feels a bit hollow and the songs don’t really get things pumping the way you’re willing them to.

The production picks up with Greased Lightin’ led by Stephen Mahy as Kenickie but it’s not until Todd McKenney’s appearance as Teen Angel that the show hits its groove. Resplendent in a gleaming white suit studded with rhinestones, a silver waistcoat, silver boots and white blonde wig that makes him look like a cross between Liberace and a cheesy Elvis, it’s a literally glittering turn. It may be unashamedly over-the-top but McKenney exudes the charisma, star power and fun that the show needs at that point to really lift: definitely another production highlight.

Rob Mills and Gretel Scarlett are both likeable as Danny and Sandy. Mills’ voice has grown in recent years and he brings his winning, cheeky charm to the character, while Scarlett has a lovely voice, which soars with crystal clarity in Hopelessly Devoted to You. However, there’s little chemistry between them.

Other characters among the Rydell High students are less well delineated and get somewhat lost in the mix, particularly the boys, with a couple of songs getting hardly any response from the opening night audience.

Bert Newton may be a much-loved Australian celebrity and cast for that reason but he is far too old to play DJ Vince Fontaine – something that becomes wince-makingly obvious when he is called on to flirt with Marty (Karla Tonkich) – and his accent comes and goes. As Johnny Casino, Anthony Callea puts a contemporary pop spin on Born to Hand Jive instead of the original 1950s rhythm and blues rockabilly style – and something is lost.

The set is relatively modest though it does the job and the colourful costumes work well but the choreography could do with a sharper 1950s vibe and edge.

The story itself is so simple it doesn’t bear much analysis. The teenagers’ problems come and go very quickly, while the ending has always sent a somewhat mixed message with Sandy transforming herself into a bad girl to get her guy. But it’s always been that way and when everything is hitting the mark it doesn’t matter. Here, it is somewhat exposed.

Nonetheless, the songs are great and so familiar that the audience laps them up. (They certainly did in Brisbane where the show sold out before coming to Sydney). Promoted as “the number one party musical”, this production of Grease is fun but it’s hardly electrifyin’.

Grease plays at the Lyric Theatre until December 8 then at Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre, January 2 – February 9.

An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on October 20