The Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s current production of “Singin’ in the Rain” gets off on the wrong foot almost immediately. Like the 1952 film it’s based on – it uses Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s screenplay as its script – the show opens at the premiere of a new film starring Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont, cherished stars of the silent silver screen, gossip columns and celebrity tabloids, circa 1927. The movie within the show is called “The Royal Rascal,” and regional productions of “Singin’ in the Rain” are tasked with the job of creating their own “Royal Rascal” short film to be projected as part of each production. “The Royal Rascal” is clearly a swashbuckling adventure film, but Maltz treats it like a postmodern parody, sneering at silent films from a supposedly more enlightened time of today.
This is a pet peeve of mine, and it tarnished “The Artist,” too. Call it insufficient reverence for the artistically vital period that birthed the cinema, reducing the celluloid frontier to sloppy intertitles and egregious overacting. This is probably how many people who have never seen a full-length silent film think of them today – as laughable slogs – when this is the period that gave rise to Griffith, Chaplin, Keaton, Murnau, Bunuel, Dreyer, Von Sternberg, Eisenstein, Hitchcock, et al.
But I digress. More than that, the short film doesn’t jibe with its context: If you recall the short clip from the “Singin’ in the Rain” film, “The Royal Rascal” is not intended to be a comedy, self-conscious or otherwise, and it’s also worth noting that Maltz made no effort to at least add specks of film grain into its presentation; it’s a cool, crisp digital image. In form or content, it looks nothing like a movie that would be shown to audiences in 1927.*
I harp on this detail because a great production should get all the little details right. This “Singin’ in the Rain” is being co-produced with the Fulton Theatre in Pennsylvania, but perhaps Maltz should have mounted this show entirely on its own, because it’s a notch below the standard of excellence of its recent musical productions, like “The Music Man” and “Holly, Dolly!” It’s a little too wacky, a little too trying. Its comic timing doesn’t quite land the way it should, and it comes off as labored – lacking the fluid sense of effortlessness and sparkle that has become a trademark for the Maltz.
As Cosmo Brown, Brian Shepard is a quality hoofer and an affable personality, but as the show’s comic pulse, his performance wilts. “Make ‘Em Laugh” is, frankly, abysmal. Even while acknowledging that Donald O’Conner’s film performance sets an impossibly high bar, Shepard’s performance, under occasionally incoherent staging from Marc Robin, never even limbos under it.
Emily Stockdale, though, is a delight as Lina Lamont, never breaking from a high-pitched voice that would break down terrorists, and by the end engendering our pity as an emotionally wounded megalomaniac steamrolled by progress. As Roscoe Dexter, the long-suffering director for the fictional Monumental Pictures, Andrew Kindig is a scene-stealer. He’s probably the funniest actor onstage, channeling the hair-pulling, flask-downing frustration of turbulent moviemaking. And generally, the Maltz/Fulton scenic design and special effects evoke the period well, with film reels and Academy Award statuettes framing the action, enviably glittering costumes, and with lighting and sound designs that are invigorated with the creation of cinematic artifice, from a smoke machine to the illusion of moonlight and starry nights, all accessible with the turn of a lever.
And, of course, there’s rain, too, falling from the theater’s rafters in a downpour during the title sequence and soaking patrons in the first four rows, who are supplied with ponchos before entering the auditorium. Curt Dale Clark, who plays Lockwood, is no Gene Kelly – again, that impossible-expectations thing – but in this magical moment he becomes him, crossed with a schoolyard bully, taking perverse delight in dousing the audience with water, a mischievous grin on his face with every twirl of his wet umbrella. It’s a glorious moment, the kind we go to the theater to experience – a perfect few minutes of an otherwise imperfect show.
The show runs through Jan. 27 at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Road, Jupiter. Tickets are $46-$68. Call 561/575-2223 or visit jupitertheatre.org.
* It’s worth noting that the source material harbors its own fallacies regarding the transition from silent to sound cinema. Warner Brothers did not set out to make “The Jazz Singer” the first talkie, as “Singin’ in the Rain” implies; Al Jolson’s groundbreaking spoken-word passages were improvisations in an otherwise silent film with some synchronized songs.