Thursday, August 24, 2017

Singin' In The Rain - singing, tapping, dancing, acting (BSPA at The MAC until 26 August)

The recent Northern Ireland weather could not have been more appropriate for this week’s staging of Singin’ In The Rain. The seniors from Belfast School of Performing Arts have been rehearsing for two weeks, and last night demonstrated their torrent of talent on the MAC stage.

The musical is set around the late 1920s when silent movies were being upstaged by talking pictures. Lina Lamont and Don Lockwood have developed a cult fan following for their films, helped by a publicity machine that hints at real life romance. But Lina’s shrieking voice is not suitable for the talkies, and Don falls for the charms of a young actress Kathy Selden. When sound needs to be retrofitted to the studio’s about-to-be-released silent film, Kathy dubs Lina’s part and the success of the production goes to Lina’s head.

For this show, the plot is by no means the star of the show. Instead it’s a framework for a series of songs and dance routines that stretch and show off the talents of its cast rather than build towards any emotional crescendo.

Curtis Patrick gives a poised and assured performance as Don Lockwood, showing his confidence and competence as he sang, tapped, danced, acted and kissed his way through the scenes. But it is Don’s sidekick Cosmo Brown, played by the incredible Conor Johnston, who brings the most physicality to the stage, and while he didn’t get to run up a wall or mimic the range of facial and gymnastic tomfoolery from the original film, Johnston did make the audience laugh during Make ‘Em Laugh, aided by Kat Reagen’s choreography and comedic use of stunt doubles.

The roles of Kathy and Lina have been double cast and the two pairs of actors alternate performances across the run. Emma Martin played the role of Kathy Seldon on Wednesday evening, moving her character from cold to coy to coquettish as she pricked the conceit of leading man Don Lockwood. Her constantly changing facial expressions and glances kept the audience’s attention and her beautiful voice was a perfect contrast with her shrieking love rival. Lina Lamont is the baddie of the piece, the one we’re meant to hate, the character whose ego has inflated well beyond their talent. Yet Emma Dallas manages to grow rather than grate on an audience who are quite happy for her to get a plate of “whipped cream in the kisser” so by the time she sings What’s Wrong With Me? we’ve warmed to her predicament.

Jared Green deserves a special mention: his tenor performance of Beautiful Girl was spine-tingling and one of the stand out moments of the production. Patrick Connor’s portrayal of an Oirish policeman hammed up the role to make it light and funny without going over the top. The fourteen piece band with a great brass section was led by Ashley Fulton belted out the tunes while the cast of 35 created some lovely moments of choral harmony.

BSPA’s production directed by Peter Corry follows the West End 2012 revival score, with a long first half that finishes with the iconic title song. While at first it seemed that it might be a case of Singin’ With An Umbrella And No Rain, half way through the song the curtain was lifted to reveal a modest, humorous yet effective splashing finale before the interval. Spoiler: leave the theatre and head down to the bar during the interval if you don’t want to miss a rain-inspired extra performance while the stage is dried up and made safe for act two.

There were a lot of original touches to the production, with a shuffling tram, suspended fairy lights and good use of projection. Funny scene changes involving the MAC’s horizontal curtain are fast becoming a trope of BSPA productions. While aping the constant film studio movement in the background of the 1952 film’s scenes, at times I found the busyness on stage and all the extra bells and whistles a distraction from the principal characters driving the story. Sometimes less is more even in the over the top world of musicals

Singin’ In The Rain is BSPA’s second big show in the MAC this summer, and once again they’ve proven that a Northern Ireland stage can be filled with performers who can take on and deliver classic musicals with the help of a very able backroom team of directors, arrangers, choreographers and coaches. The programme notes explain that a handful of the principal actors are heading to London next week to pursue musical theatre courses. One can only hope that outside of BSPA, there will be opportunities for their talent to return to local stages, even if – outside amateur operatic companies – musical theatre in NI has been relegated for commercial reasons to Christmas Shows and touring West End productions.

Singin’ In The Rain continues its run in the MAC until Saturday 26 August.

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