Here's a killer shopping list for anyone casting a stage adaptation of Singin' in the Rain: one male lead with film star looks, machine-gun tap skills and perfect comic timing; one sweet-voiced ingénue capable of hoofing her way over the back of a sofa; one perky comic who can belt out a tune, tinkle the ivories and perform backflips by running at the wall; one comedienne with the grace of a swan and the voice of a helium-filled Brooklyn broad.
Four names, of course, fit the bill perfectly: Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O'Connor and Jean Hagen. But nobody ever asked them to do their shtick nightly and twice on matinee days.
Tommy Steele's 1983 London Palladium production used expensive special effects, pre-recorded songs and pre-recorded taps to take the pressure off its performers. Jude Kelly's recent production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse devoted its energies to the title number in the hope that nobody would notice the poverty of everything else. The new version at Sadler's Wells - directed by Paul Kerryson and choreographed by its star, Adam Cooper - hasn't the budget to buy off its audience with spectacle. And unfortunately, it has little else to offer by way of compensation.
Cooper is the production's salient disappointment. He plays Kelly's role of Don Lockwood, idol of 1920s Hollywood, with a sweet, self-deprecating mildness that might have suited an adaptation of a Fred Astaire musical, but which seems entirely inappropriate for a character based on Douglas Fairbanks. He chirps thoughtlessly through his comic dialogue, can't keep a grip on the American accent, and his choreography is positively tantric in its refusal to build up to a climax. Only during a sequence that allows him to employ the classical ballet moves for which he was trained does Cooper discover some momentum and pizzazz.
His co-stars seem more at ease, even if their performances are not necessarily any better. Simon Coulthard attacks the Donald O'Connor part until the tendons in his neck stick out like those of Deirdre Rachid. Josefina Gabrielle makes a standard-issue Broadway baby of Kathy Selden, the Debbie Reynolds role. And as Lina Lamont, the squawking screen siren threatened with humiliation by the coming of the talkies, Ronni Ancona demonstrates that she can produce a sound to outdo anything that can be achieved with a blackboard and a strong set of nails. Her stiff little pout and jerky movements, however, suggest that she doesn't see that the role's real humour lies in the disjunction between physical grace and vocal awfulness.
A few apposite notes from Paul Kerryson could have rectified some of these inadequacies. And watching the production, it's hard to see where else his attention might have been directed, so beset is it by lapses of dramatic logic, clumsy scene changes and sloppy stage business. Why, I found myself wondering, is Lina capable of holding a tune in her solo number, when we've seen her in the rushes from the talkie she's just shot, wailing like a stuck tabby? Why does Kathy Selden live in a doorway cut into sky? And didn't anyone realise that sight gags involving flowers and stuffed birds play better if the comedy props are actually visible from the auditorium? Or that jokes about the crude technology of the early talking pictures aren't quite so funny when the voices of your cast are harshly amplified; your rain machine suffers from bouts of incontinence and the excerpts we see from Lockwood and Lamont's movies look more like Crackerjack sketches than costume drama from Hollywood's golden age?
It's dangerous, too, to tease an audience by encouraging it to believe that it's about to witness the recreation of a golden moment from the film version, and then cop out. Why bring on a sofa for the scene in which the three leads sing "Good Mornin'" if you're not going to let them walk over its back? Why seduce us into believing that Simon Coulthard will reproduce Donald O'Connor's famous against-the-wall backflip, and then reveal the wall as a paper fake and collapse it over his head? All that's generated is a sense of bathos. For anything approaching the wonderful feeling described by the title song, you'll have to look elsewhere. Your local video shop, perhaps.
'Singin' in the Rain': Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (0870 737 7737) to 4 September
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