A Deluge of Talent, A Flood of Entertainment
In this era of adapting movies into theatrical productions, many have made the transition from film to stage with much success. Most Disney classics, such as “The Lion King,” come to mind. Mel Brooks improved upon his own cinematic classic, “The Producers,” by musicalizing it for the the stage. “Hairspray,” “Billy Elliot,” “Legally Blonde” and “Xanadu” are further examples of movies that have survived adaptation. The 1952 classic cinema about Hollywood’s transition from silent films to the “talkies” has finally arrived in Chicago in a truly stellar stage production.
This theatrical musical adaptation originated in 1983 in London’s West End and was popular enough with Brits to spawn three revivals and a National Tour. Continual adjustments were made to the script and score, and the show finally opened on Broadway in 1985. There it received lukewarm response. Some critics said that the theatrical and cinematic worlds simply didn’t mix. And in truth, this play tries very hard to imitate the film version. However, where the Marriott’s production especially succeeds is in keeping every single moment, even the silent film clips, as live, stage performances. There’s no celluloid to stop the show dead, as in previous productions.
The all-around creativity of this show must be attributed to the many artists connected with this production, not the least of which is the show’s talented director, William Brown. Making his Marriott directorial debut, Brown won recent acclaim at Writers Theatre with his gritty, reimagined production of “Company.” He continues to showcase his genius, challenged here by a musical that must be staged in the round, is a tribute to the making of motion pictures, while also demanding such special effects as a deluge of water raining down upon his leading actor, while he’s singing and tapping all over the stage.
Ryan T. Nelson has once again musically directed this show with his typical sensitivity and finesse. Patti Garwood conducts her period-sounding nine-member orchestra with verve and balance. The songs by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown have never sounded more wonderful. Tammy Mader’s choreography gets better and better with every show. Here she outdoes herself, creating entertaining busker, vaudeville and modern dances, in addition to some wildly exhilarating, gravity-defying tap numbers.
Resident scenic designer Thomas M. Ryan has devised an open stage environment that provides the space necessary for such a dance-centric production, while supplying the required wind and fog machines and old-fashioned lighting instruments and rigging that bespeak a sound stage. His audience decor, with its silhouetted faux palm trees and curved arches, is also subtly reminiscent of Hollywood’s Golden Era. Jesse Klug’s lighting is awash with color and texture, recreating the movie world, as well as the imagination of the actors. And, as always, Nancy Missimi’s delicious costumes sparkle and dazzle, bringing back the allure of Hollywood in the 20’s.
The 21-member cast is absolute perfection, from the leading players to the talented singing/dancing ensemble. Danny Gardner, such a scene-stealing hoofer in Broadway’s recent revival of “Dames at Sea,” debuts at the Marriott playing Don Lockwood, the leading character of the play, created in the film by Gene Kelly. Gardner’s lush voice, winning smile and agile feet make every moment on the stage a star turn.
He’s matched by both of his costars. Mary Michael Patterson is the ideal love interest for Gardner. As Kathy Selden, the role originally played by Debbie Reynolds, Ms. Patterson demonstrates that this New York talent has it all. She’s lovely, has a clear, wide-range singing voice and can tap with the best of them. Who’d have imagined that an actress, known on Broadway for portraying Christine in “Phantom of the Opera,” could also be such a winsome, wonderful triple-threat? And Richard Riaz Yoder, fresh from his own show-stopping performances on Broadway in “On the 20th Century” and “Shuffle Along,” is the consummate Cosmo Brown. As Don Lockwood’s affable best friend and talented sidekick, Yoder has a smile that lights up the room, a voice that hits all the right notes and the tap dancing skills of Donald O’Connor, the originator of the role.
Every actor brings his A-game to this production, creating so many memorable, hilarious characters. Alexandra Palkovic, a local talent, capable of playing any stage role, is wonderfully funny as the dimwitted diva, Lina Lamont. With a grating voice that could peel paint and shatter glass, she’s priceless as a lovely, egotistical silent film celebrity, who finds it difficult making the jump into talkies. Catherine Smitko, standing out in a half dozen varied roles, is very funny as Hollywood gossip columnist, Dora Bailey, and as Lina’s frustrated diction coach, Phoebe Dinsmore. Always a comic treat, Jackson Evans has some hilarious, addled moments as Rod, the head of publicity. And Jason Grimm, Gabriel Ruiz and Sean Michael Hunt are excellent as the head of Monumental Pictures, the director of “The Dancing Cavalier,” and their studio assistant, Sid Phillips.
Wringing down the curtain on this current season, Marriott’s new offering is a glitzy, glamorous homage to one of the most celebrated movie musicals of all time. Staged with energy and creativity by William Brown, choreographed with magnificent precision by Tammy Mader and beautifully musical directed by Ryan T. Nelson, this large, dynamite cast of triple threats, a veritable deluge of talent, offers up a flood of entertainment, putting the singin’ and the dancin’ back into the rain.