BWW Review: SINGIN' IN THE RAIN at NextStop Theatre Company
Certain shows are practically foolproof bets for audiences. A Midsummer Night's Dream, for example, is such an exquisitely crafted play on the page that a good time is all but guaranteed. Singin' in the Rain, the stage musical based on the 1952 film directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, is one of those guarantees. But NextStop Theatre Company's new production, their 2018-19 season closer, is not complacent to simply let the natural charms of this show lure in its audience. They've built a showcase for a dynamic ensemble of on and offstage talent, and the work put into every single moment is palpable and dazzlingly joyful.
The first thing you'll notice when you walk in is the set, designed by Evan Hoffmann, both the director of Singin' in the Rain and NextStop's Artistic Director. Set up to look like both an old movie house and a vaudeville theater. This clever set-up reflects both the early struggles between celluloid and stage, and this story's attempts to bring them closer together.
A story refresher for the few who might not know it: after the success of a sound film, it's determined that the newest vehicle starring Don Lockwood (Wood Van Meter) and Lina Lamont (Carolyn Burke), trained silent film stars, would change to sound. The problem: Lamont has a terrible voice. Everyone pulls together a plan involving a young ingenue Kathy Selden (Morgan Kelleher) and a series of very clever and very funny dance numbers and set pieces.
The cast is uniformly charming - Van Meter and Burke are lovely together, and Robert Mintz as Cosmo Brown, Lockwood's best friend and talented musician, is a standout. Mintz and Van Meter, in particular, nail Singin' in the Rain's classical tap dance numbers, which are beautifully choreographed by Mintz himself. Duane Monahan, Melrose Pyne Anderson, Elizabeth Spikes and Ethan Van Slyke all play a variety of parts and fill out the world of the show with a good deal of ease.
Ethan Van Slyke and Carolyn Burke are the standouts; Van Slyke, a younger performer than his castmates, crushes one of the most memorable songs from the show, "Beautiful Girls," a number that no doubt daunts most seasoned performers. Burke has a very difficult role to play; the optics around Lamont as a character are not great in 2019, but Burke more than makes up for it with her pristine comic timing. She has one of the show's late numbers, "What's Wrong with You," and makes you wish someone would write a new musical for this character. The idea of a silent film actress forced to endure the major change to sound could make for a great, poignant role, but the original screenplay by Betty Comden & Adolph Green sadly doesn't afford Lamont that level of depth, instead placing her in opposition of other characters' goals, and in 2019 it really doesn't play well. Props again to Burke for rising above the material and leaving a lasting impression.
Hoffmann directs his ensemble through a number of exciting moments, flexing a variety of creative and clever moments that could only happen on stage. He's aided by Max Doolittle's lights and Moyenda Kulemeka's costumes - one of the best touches is that the film's director is played by everyone at some point wearing only a red director's cap. Doolittle helps create an early moment of a film-within-a-play using either projections, shadows or a mix of both, and to his credit I genuinely couldn't tell which, it's so seamlessly done. Another standout is a joke written into the script about how hard it was in early days to sync sound to picture. There are so many individual moments of imaginative moments that the stage tends to clutter at times, so not everything lands, but the ones that do are memorable.
One I'm still thinking about days later is the performance of the title song. I won't give anything away, but it's a special moment for all involved, a strong mixture of audience participation and the creativity and flexibility of the ensemble. One of the strongest tools a theatre artist has is expectation, and every time you think you know how they'll pull off "Singin' in the Rain," they take you on another welcome turn. It's a magical moment, and indicative of the show as a whole.
Singin' in the Rain runs through June 23, 2019 at NextStop Theatre Company, located at 269 Sunset Park Drive, Herndon, VA, 20170. For tickets, visit NextStop's website.