Saturday, October 6, 2012

Singin' without rain

There's a time and a place for everything. A door goes at the front of a house, an introduction is placed before a novel, breakfast is eaten before lunch. And so on, and so forth. There is a traditional order of things and since we are slaves to tradition and habit, we just accept them as they are.

One of the exceptions to this rule, and one I've frequently encountered in my exploits as a connoisseur (or if I'm not being pretentious, a lover) of theater, is the breaking of the tradition of plays and musicals made solely for the stage without previous precedent.

Though many of the world's greatest performances are sparred from works by Shakespeare, Ibsen, Simon and dozens of other notable playwrights, I am a firm believer in the art of the adaptation. Some of my favorite musicals came from screen to stage (Billy Elliot, par exemple), vice versa (Bye Bye Birdie) or even went in both directions (Hairspray). Others were adapted from books like Wicked, Les Misérables and Oliver!. Some even come from other plays - take, for example, Spring Awakening (or Frühlings Erwachen).

But there are some adaptations that never were meant to make the transition. And while I leave my heart open to the possibilities of theater to either enhance or set the standard for a new or repeated piece of art, at a time like this I can't help but groan and look for the DVD to cleanse my mouth.

It's not that Singin' in the Rain was a terrible stage performance. Simply by the fact that I knew and appreciate the music, enjoyed the story arc, delighted in the characters and swooned over the dancing, I had some expectation of excitement at the play. But it wasn't until the performers started performing that I was really met by the true problem at hand. This show was simply not made for the stage. Perhaps for spectacle, but not for the kind of theatrical connection I've come to expect when I go to see a show.

There truth is that there was something inherently contradictory about the adaptation. As a film, Singin' in the Rain is about the transition from silent film to talkies in the 1920s and there is an incredible devotion to subtle, yet specific stylistic changes throughout the film that indicate different eras and subliminal text. Essentially, the movie is about how the transition to talkies still possessed the slight imbecility of the era of silent film, where there were exaggerated performances and ridiculous storylines accompanied by overly expressive actors in outrageous clothing.

If you're sick of adjectives, I am too. Glad we're on the same page.

Just like the overuse of exclamation through my descriptors above, watching the performance became a battle between the musical, my knowledge of the original film and my history of watching stage plays. While I wanted to love it, and I appreciated it for its costuming and gimmicky rain scenes that had audience members enthusiastically splattered with water, the unintentional kitsch of the performances got to me in a way that - while a stereotype of theater, is not characteristic of good plays.

Actors put on obviously false and overreaching New York accents. They made facial expression that could seen, quite literally, from the back row. Chemistry lagged and if I hadn't seen the male and female protagonists kissing constantly on stage, I might not have believed they even liked each other.

But the most disheartening aspect was that it served as a kind of joke on the whole idea of Singin' in the Rain. This film was created to serve as a sort of playfully poking anti-thesis to 1920s cinema. Made in the 1950s, it possessed an awareness of the history of film and it strove to make commentary while maintaining this nostalgic look back at the history of cinema and theater.

Then you see it on stage and you forget it's a sort of farce, only to be faced with this difficult to characterize but definitely overacted attempt at conveying the same message.

There is a moment during the show in which Kathy Selden, the female protagonist, is talking about being a theater actress. She expresses to her future love interest, Don Lockwood, that theater is a medium that allows actors to be honest and expressive in just the right quantities, as opposed to his work in silent film which is exaggerated and unrealistic.

It seemed ironic to hear a main character of the musical talking about theater production this way, only to re-enter a scene of what seemed like a group of actors with neuroses about not getting the proper amount of laughs. They strained so hard for audience appreciation, that they somehow ended up getting a standing ovation. I participated, but it felt a little dishonest doing so.

One success that I attest to this show is the ability to create an experience rather than a simple stage performance. A lot of musical theater tries to capture audience attention with emotion and character development, and for an audience in for a laugh and a fun time, that might not be on the agenda. On the whole, Singin' in the Rain served its purpose.

It just wasn't right for me. As someone who prefers to sit in the front row at a play and see the bright lights glistening in the actors' eyes, I try to look more through the windows into their souls than past the windows to the people dancing behind them. But it's truly a matter of preference, and it's quite possible to enjoy both types of theater - just as it is to enjoy one or the other.

Without being too negative - and I guess I've already crossed that bridge - I want to say that this show simply didn't live up to the high expectations I had from such a stellar and well-acted film as Singin' in the Rain. But Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor and Debby Reynolds are hard acts to follow, quite understandably. Despite being disappointed in some ways, I am glad that I saw it. Glad to have my interest in the film re-sparked, glad to be reminded of intricacies of the story and especially glad to appreciate how wonderful a commodity the film Singin' in the Rain is. Because it really is.

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