A refreshing, sunny “Singin’ in the Rain”
NextStop Theatre Company in Herndon, Virginia, is putting a fun spin on the musical comedy Singin’ in the Rain, now through June 23. Because the 1952 film starring Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds is such a beloved classic, live theaters might shy away from producing the musical. Not NextStop, whose actors and productions have been nominated for — and have recently won — several Helen Hayes Awards.
Director and scenic designer Evan Hoffmann stages the performance like a special screening night of the famous film. The set is built to resemble an Art Deco movie theater from decades ago, and theater staff hand out delicious free popcorn at the door.
A whiteboard on the stage indicates that the film screening will begin at 8 p.m., only to be corrected hurriedly to 7 p.m. a few minutes before the start time. You almost miss it if you’re not paying attention, but it’s a subtle precursor to the staged snafus and hilarity to come.
When the opening credits roll, for instance, the screening is cut short by faulty equipment, so the actors scramble to start their own version onstage. The transition from the “film screening” to the “live performance” is slightly awkward for a couple of moments, but perhaps that was the point — to engage the audience. Despite the initial uncertainty, the premise yielded entertaining results.
NextStop is an interesting theater even if you’re a veteran playgoer in and around Washington, D.C. Previously a warehouse, the building became a theater in 1988. What resulted was a uniquely intimate configuration of seats; even the back rows feel close to the stage. It’s easy to see the actors’ expressions and movements without having to crane your neck around tall people in front of you.
The intimacy of the space lends itself well to the refreshing approach that Hoffmann takes with Singin’ in the Rain. The cast is comprised of only a few actors, but because the story needs a crowd for the Hollywood premieres, screenings and other scenes, audience members become active participants. The production’s gimmicks — cue cards, asking questions of the audience — are a clever throwback to silent films in a musical intended to lampoon the Golden Age of Hollywood.
In Singin’ in the Rain, silent film stars Don Lockwood (Wood Van Meter) and Lina Lamont (Carolyn Burke) are at the height of their careers in the 1920s. However, their tried-and-true methods don’t measure up to the popularity of a new “talking picture,” The Jazz Singer.
Film studio creatives Cosmo Brown (Robert Mintz) and R.F. Simpson (Duane Monahan) work to save the next Lockwood-Lamont film from disaster by adding sound. However, Lina’s New York accent cannot be improved even by a diction coach, so up-and-coming actress Kathy Selden (Morgan Kelleher), Don’s new girlfriend, eventually provides her voiceover.
The NextStop actors constitute a strong ensemble. Any of them could be your favorite of the evening. Elizabeth Spikes as Dora Bailey is an amusing radio host, making references to the film in a tone reminiscent of a modern red carpet interview. Van Meter and Kelleher exhibit wonderful chemistry as Don and Kathy.
Mintz not only plays a studio executive but also serves as choreographer, infusing the show with fantastic dance sequences. Some numbers, like “Fit as a Fiddle” and “Moses,” are quite different from the ones in the movie, employing strong shadow play in “Fiddle” for comedic effect and giving the diction coach (Monahan) a significant dancing part in “Moses.”
Hoffmann’s vision of the titular song was also innovative. The actors guide the audience in an interactive sequence, snapping and rubbing their hands together. The sounds come together nicely to simulate rainfall. Of course, real water comes into play — and to great comedic effect — with watering cans, but the simulated sounds are more evocative.
During opening night, the only hiccup I noticed was soft volume on a microphone during a key musical number. That glitch was remedied by the next scene. NextStop Theatre Company has accomplished an admirable and enjoyable interpretation of Singin’ in the Rain.
For more information or to buy tickets, visit nextstoptheatre.org or call (866) 811-4111. Performances continue through June 23 at the NextStop Theatre Company, 269 Sunset Park Dr., Herndon, Virginia. Tickets are $55. Although no senior discounts are available for individual performances, those 65 and older may purchase a senior season package for $119. Accessible seating is available.