At first glance, Singin’ in the Rain at Village Theatre and King Charles III at Seattle Rep might seem to have next to nothing in common. One is a screen to stage transfer of a most beloved 1952 MGM musical satire of Hollywood ushering in talking pictures, while the other is an audacious, Masterpiece Theatre sort of drama, imagining the turnover at the top when Queen Elizabeth finally breathes her last. The former may sugarcoat its satire and fictionalize its character prototypes while the latter revels in supposing the real royals of Great Britain so astutely that it may seem like you are watching a docudrama. But in either show, one questions where reality ends and satire begins.
Singin’ in the Rain is one of a handful of musicals from the Golden Age of Hollywood that people still enjoy, and reference. That is largely due to the ever effervescent wit and wisdom of the late, great team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green screenplay, which was barely altered when the show was re-tailored for the stage some years back. It’s parody of silent stars struggling to speak on-screen, gossip columnist, and stars who believe their own publicity is as funny and factual as ever. The timeless title tune, and the rest of the jaunty score is by legendary MGM film producer Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, culled largely from a catalogue of songs the team wrote in the infancy of talking pictures in the late 1920’s and early thirties.
The script, blithe and as barebones as possible, tells of red-hot silent film stars Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont, a pair whose supposed real-life romance is anything but. Don falls for actress Kathy Selden. His good right arm is quippy and zany musician Cosmo Brown who was Don’s partner in vaudeville. When Jolson’s The Jazz Singer takes tinsel-town by storm, the powers that be at Monumental Pictures hurry to rework Don and Lina’s latest film into a talkie, but Lina’s screechy voice and inability to work with primitive mic-ing seem to spell doom. But wait! Don, Cosmo, and Kathy come up with the plan to dub Lina’s speaking voice and vocals. Lina gets wind of this and balks. If you have never seen Singin’ in the Rain on stage or screen, you must be from Space Station Mars, but I won’t spoil the ending from you other than to say it is a happy one for most everyone.
Veteran Director Steve Tomkins knows musicals better than anyone else in town, and he wisely takes an “If it Ain’t broke, why fix it?” approach to Singin’. Not that this is a slavish recreation of the film mind you, but it certainly does it honor, as does Katy Tabb’s shiny and succinct work staging the dance numbers. Tomkins’ casting of principals, supporting, and ensemble is right on the money. John David Scott as Don looks like the love-child of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, and his handling of the big title song, amidst an actual delicious downpour, is but one of many highlights in his performance. Mallory King, a newer face in town is spot on right for the role of Kathy Selden, learning and honing her craft as she falls in love with Don. As Cosmo, Gabriel Corey’s age belies his muggably lovable rubber face and mastery of comic dance, especially in the comic chaos of the “Make ‘Em Laugh” dance number. Scott, King, and Corey make a top-notch trio on “Good Morning” while Scott and Corey also do wonders with the zany “Moses Supposes” number, joined by Greg Allen’s supercilious diction coach. Allen also gets a huge reaction in a filmed reel mocking the early attempts at teaching speech to film actors.
Still, the role of self-impressed, self-serving, selfish, and scatter brained Lina Lamont is the show stealer, and actress/singer Jessica Skerritt runs away with every moment she is onstage. Skerritt’s Lena also makes the inclusion of the song “What’s Wrong With Me?” (not from the film) the comic highlight of the production, as she sings EVERY note in the heretofore unknown key of L sharp!
Other stalwart talents in the production include: the boisterously funny Bobbi Kotula in dual roles as the Mother-hen like gossip maven Dora Bailey as well as Lina’s overwrought speech coach Phoebe Dinsmore; jovial Jeff Steitzer as aggrieved Studio head R.F. Simpson; and Ty Willis as blustering director Roscoe Dexter. Dancer Pamela Turpen is totally on point as the featured chanteuse in the lengthy but luscious “Broadway Ballet”, the musical’s showpiece, and the next generation is amply represented by Kai Johnson and Bryan Kinder as a young Don and Cosmo respectively in “Fit as a Fiddle.”
Bill Forrester’s scenic design is an impressionistic, free-flowing, backlot Hollywood, oozing with colorful phoniness, and is well-matched by Michael Gilliam’s lighting design. Cynthia Savage’s Technicolor costumes are eye-catchers, and the show’s musical direction by Tim Symons and Bruce Monroe is brassy, sassy and succulent.
Singin’ in the Rain runs through Dec 31, 2016 at the Francis J. Gaudette Theatre in Issaquah, before moving to the Everett Performing Arts Center from January 6 – 29, 2017. For tickets and information, visit villagetheatre.org.
I have learned more about the last century or so of the British monarchy, watching the amazing Netflix drama The Crown recently, and concurrently seeing Seattle Repertory Theatre’s King Charles III, a co-production with San Francisco’s ACT Theatre and The Shakespeare festival. This cleverly written piece of reality-meets-fiction by playwright Mike Bartlett was appropriately written in blank verse, and deftly looks at the supposed future of the modern-day Royals in a style that frequently tips its crown to Shakespeare. The play is most certainly the thing here, as Director David Muse’s production trots more often than it gallops, and features several standout performances, amidst an ultimately uneven ensemble.
Prince Charles, after decades in waiting, is finally to become King after the passing of Queen Elizabeth. When the Prime Minister proposes legislation to restrict the freedom of the press, King Charles protests, in a direct conflict with long-standing rules of British democracy. Charles’ 2nd wife Camilla, sons Prince William and Prince Harry, William’s wife Kate Middleton, and several other actual figures from the current court (as well as the late Princess Diana’s ghost) are major components of this fascinating blend of truth and fantasy.
Playing upon a richly detailed and boldly imagined Castle cum Cathedral set designed by Daniel Ostling, the key role of Charles is embodied by marvelous actor Robert Joy, who elicits sympathy as the King that never was. He is especially moving when he tries to support his younger son Harry (an excellent Harry Smith) in his romance with a fiery anti-royals protestor (Michelle Beck, uncomfortable in an ill-conceived role) only to see things amongst the powers behind and sometimes closest to the King, squelch it in much the way Queen Elizabeth was made to go against her heart and interfere with her beloved sister Princess Margaret’s love for a divorced British military officer. Joy also fleshes out Charles’ uncontrolled anguished outbursts, without turning the play into The Madness of King Charles III.
Other performances of special note include Allison Jean White’s bold and calculating Kate Middleton, imagined by the playwright and the dazzling actress as a Young Lady Macbeth sort with greater skills at covering her machinations, Christopher McLinden as an easily led Prince William, and Jeanne Paulsen at her notable best as a rather sympathetic, but generally ignored Camilla. The balance of the cast is respectable but somehow lacking in that something that extra that makes for a cohesive ensemble.
Jennifer Moeller’s costume design is impeccably true to life, Lap Chi Chu’s lighting design works perfectly in sync with Ostling’s aforementioned scenic design, and Mark Bennett’s original music and sound design are a perfect aural match for the play.
King Charles III seems a perfect fit for the all-ready announced 2017 Masterpiece/BBC co-production starring Timothy Piggott-Smith who created the role in the UK and repeated it on Broadway this time last year. The Rep production, with Robert Joy’s central performance is a perfectly fine facsimile thereof.
The production runs through December 18, 2016 at The Seattle Repertory Theatre at the Seattle Center. For tickets and other information visit seattlerep.org.