The latest, big-name, all-time classic, crowd-pleasing, and crowd-attracting production to come out of Moorpark’s historic High Street Arts Center has just finished week three of its five-week run. This is probably just at or just past the point where we typically see a show “gain its legs,” so to speak. That is to say that, by now, they have worked out the kinks in the run, actors are very comfortable with their lines and interactions, the regular choices that their characters make onstage, and everyone’s worked out their show routine backstage. It’s become, more or less, a well-oiled machine.
Having seen the show on a Saturday night with a packed house of theater-goers, I can say that this is probably true with this production of “Singin’ in the Rain.” With the exception of one prolonged moment between scene changes, where I can only imagine someone or multiple someones weren’t ready, I can say that everything flowed smoothly from the perspective of an unwitting audience member.
This is especially impressive given the fact that, at several points within the show, the audience is treated to short videos that are shown on one of two projection screens that must be carefully flown in and out at a moment’s notice. Having worked at High Street on several occasions, and knowing how finicky technology can be during a live performance of any kind, I applaud this production and its staff for pulling this off rather well. In fact, for me, the videos were one of the more enjoyable aspects of the show.
Fortunately for this cast and crew, my issues with the stage version of Singin’ in the Rain" are not necessarily through any fault of theirs. Rather, I feel like the play itself has a couple glaring faults. I won’t go too far into detail on those, because - as I said - these are not particularly controllable elements of the show.
My first issue is that it’s a very, very long show. Now, I’m the kind of person who can sit through a marathon of all three Lord of the Rings films - the extended versions - at one time, so I’m no stranger to longform entertainment. My issue with “Singin’ in the Rain” is that I feel those minutes drag on through the show, especially toward the end of the first act, where a musical cue inspires a rolling of my eyes.
My second quibble has to do with the musical numbers themselves, not necessarily how this production handled them. Gilbert & Sullivan were the first playwrights to introduce the notion that musical numbers and songs in a play can actually advance the plot. I’d say about half of the songs in “Singin’ in the Rain” do not add anything to the story or - at times - even character development. So that, coupled with the runtime, can become very draining for an audience member.
That all being said, I enjoyed High Street’s “Singin’ in the Rain” because I was able to see my friends and fellow performers up there on that stage bringing something to life, not because it was an engaging story or that the songs were memorable (save for the ever-popular classics such as “Good Morning,” and the title song).
I was impressed with the level of work that the actors, music director, choreographers, and director put into the production. Shawn Lanz’s direction is spectacularly on display, with so much attention to detail. Much of the choreography was very fun to watch, and did have the signature Tami Keaton and Amie Woolweber flair (Amie pulling double-duty while also appearing in the show). I was hoping to see some more “dazzling” tap feats and tricks, but I was still impressed to see some of the actors successfully tapping whom I didn’t know could tap at all.
If we want to talk about impressive dancing, though, it’d be a disservice not to mention Ezra Eells, who plays Cosmo Brown. Eells is, at all times, energetic and charismatic - something I also noticed during his run in High Street’s “Grease.” During his big number, he is all over the stage, displaying his prowess for physical comedy and expertly executing daring stunts that had the audience cheering even before the song had ended.
While on the topic of excellent performances, Joanna Bert is absolutely grating in the best way, playing the obnoxious Lina Lamont with so much verve and expertise. Her gaudy and abrasive dialect evokes memories of “Guys and Dolls’” Adelaide, but in such a way as to make you hope Lamont gets splashed by a passing car going through a large puddle. Every moment Lamont gets the short end of the stick is pure schadenfreude. Her song, “What’s Wrong With Me?” - while very well performed - is oddly sexually overt when contrasted with the rest of the rather wholesome show. Though this tone is fitting with her shallow and privileged character, I thought it to be in conflict with the rest of the show.
Another standout performance sees Ray Mastrovito as the studio head R.F., who definitely seems to be one of the few actors having the most fun on that stage. He wields the might and power of a late-1920’s picture studio executive with gusto and delight - reminding me of a blend of Brian Doyle Murray’s Mr. Shirley from Christmas Vacation, and the title character from The Wizard of Oz, both the great-and-powerful and the meek and sincere.
The other major players in the production all provide solid performances, including Arryck Adams in the lead role of Don Lockwood - who performs feats of dance from start to finish that would make many in this local community shy away from such a role - Brenda White as Kathy Selden - who luckily catches your attention and heart with her reactions to Don in one of the first numbers of the show, “You Stepped Out of a Dream,” without yet treating you to the wonder of her voice - Andrew Nuñez as the Director Roscoe Dexter - who gets more and more frustrated with Lina Lamont as he tries to introduce modern technology to his films - and Adam Womack as the Male Diction Coach - who hilariously goes from flustered and exasperated to bouncing and rocking out in the span of one song.
While the single backdrop used to represent the outside of the Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood brightly reflects the stage lights, and leaves something to be desired, special attention must be made to other technical aspects of the show’s design. While the “rain effect” created by lighting designer Patrick Duffy is impressive, and plays very well against the stage’s lowered scrim in the title song, I was more impressed by the large number of authentically old stage lights and stage equipment that were procured for the production and used to dress the set and light the show in certain scenes. In fact, the Monument Pictures studio set was my favorite in the show. It utilized the rear brick wall of the stage that lended a true element of realism, much like last year’s “A Chorus Line.”
I call the show a “well-executed mess” because, yes, the story itself has problems; and, yes, some of the songs are completely unnecessary and therefore add to its straining runtime; yet it was well-directed with an attention to detail that I appreciate, and the videos that were shown to us were extremely enjoyable, and had me laughing every time, especially when they finally introduced sound. Most of the performances were noteworthy, even if some choices fell flat or some characters felt “acted” instead of “real,” both among the leads and the ensemble. On that note, I felt as though the portrayal of Kathy made her more of a “real person,” and yet she was matched up with a Don who felt very hammy in that 1920’s “old-timey” way - though I feel like this was a specific choice and not, let’s say, an extent of the actor’s abilities. So that felt like an odd pairing. Perhaps that was the point.
The best compliment I can pay the show is that it made me want to see the 1952 movie on which it is based, which I have, sadly, not yet had the opportunity to do. It has given me an interest to experience this story beyond just this one form, instead of turning me off to it completely, or merely becoming a forgettable piece of theater. That’s my take on it, at least.
But don’t take my word for it. Go and see High Street’s production of “Singin’ in the Rain” before it closes on Sunday, March 4th. Shows are on Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, and Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are available through their website at www.highstreetartscenter.com/shows/singin-in-the-rain.
With Thank You 30, I’m Dave Hatfield. I’ll see you on stage.