How do you replicate perfection—especially when it involves dumping gallons of water onstage? Any theater company that undertakes a production of Singin’ in the Rain, the beloved movie musical about 1920s Hollywood, has to grapple with this question.
The creative team at NextStop Theatre Company has found an ingenious way to handle it. Director Evan Hoffman has constructed a simple frame tale about a group that has to act out the story when their planned screening of the film goes awry. This device allows some leeway with hair and costumes (e.g., gorgeous flapper dresses from costume designer Moyenda Kulemeka are paired with more modern hairstyles, which actually looks rather nice). It allows for a plain but effective set design (also by Hoffman) which can be changed with sometimes dizzying speed. It also allows for frequent hilarious creativity with props.
But most importantly, it allows great freedom in interpreting this classic in a way that’s both faithful and fresh. It lets the team confidently put its own spin on well-remembered moments, while throwing in plenty of fun new moments. Since they’re supposed to be doing all this on the fly, we get to enjoy the process of constructing the show as much as we enjoy the show itself.
An endlessly energetic cast puts every last inch of NextStop’s small space to good use, leaping on furniture, climbing onto balconies, moving out into the audience, and expertly carrying out Robert Mintz’s inventive choreography. Any number of tools and techniques—from signs and whiteboards to silhouettes on a screen to clever lighting tricks by Max Doolittle—is pressed into service to help things along. The improvisatory feel of the show only enhances the feeling of cooperation and camaraderie that’s already a part of the storyline.
The ensemble cast is so uniformly strong that it’s difficult to pick any standouts. Wood Van Meter brings the charm and charisma that’s essential to the role of Don Lockwood, while Morgan Kelleher effuses both spirit and sweetness as Kathy Selden, and the two have effortless chemistry. Robert Mintz, doing double duty as choreographer and performer, is perfectly cast as rubber-faced comic sidekick Cosmo Brown. Carolyn Burke tears with gusto into the part of malicious, squeaky-voiced Lina Lamont. The score incorporates a few songs that were added when Singin’ in the Rain was first adapted for the stage, allowing Lina to screech a disgruntled solo, “What’s Wrong with Me?,” that meets with loud audience approval. Fellow cast members Ethan Van Slyke, Melrose Pyne Anderson, and Elizabeth Spikes provide solid support in multiple roles.
In fact, every performer, even the leads, tackles multiple roles. Most if not all of them take a turn portraying movie director Roscoe Dexter, to the point where a highly versatile Duane Monahan ends up arguing with himself while playing both Dexter and producer R. F. Simpson. Kelleher proves particularly good at switching on a dime from cheery ingénue to barking boss. (A much-passed-around red hat helps the audience keep track of who’s playing Dexter at any given moment.) Another highlight of the show is the “Broadway Melody” number in which Van Meter dances with not one but three performers—Burke, Spikes, and Anderson—in very close approximations of Cyd Charisse’s classic green outfit, all of whom knock it out of the park. Even the famous, and famously difficult, “white scarf” pas de deux is recreated for Van Meter and Kelleher, though not without a few humorous touches.
Music director and keyboardist Elisa Rosman and drummer Alex Aucoin capably handle the responsibility of being the sole musicians (aside from Mintz, who at one point plays a trombone that’s part of a running gag). If I have one quibble with this splendid show, it’s that the sound seemed a little unbalanced at first, causing even Van Meter’s resonant voice to be somewhat dominated by the instrumentals. The problem didn’t take long to sort out, however.
And what about that iconic title number? I don’t want to give too much away, but Van Meter’s appealing performance of it is aided by audience participation, brilliant use of props and choreography, and loyal cast support—all the elements that help this version of Singin’ in the Rain achieve its own brand of perfection.
Running Time: Approximately two hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission.