Singin' in the Rain to make a splash on the Hong Kong stage

The much-loved Hollywood musical has been reimagined as a stage show - and the global tour arrives in Hong Kong later this month

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 September, 2015, 6:02pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 September, 2015, 6:02pm

On a hot summer day, a group of journalists are waiting politely for it to rain indoors.

Standing on a stage set designed to look like a movie backlot, they look expectantly up at the lighting rig. Someone gives the cue, and, suddenly, water - piped in from two storage tanks backstage - gushes down from 16 nozzles overhead. The sight is surreal and splendid. One can hardly resist the urge to stick out a hand to feel the "rain". It is warm to the touch - 23 degrees Celsius, to be precise.

"It's so that it'll be a comfortable temperature for the actors," explains Johann Kupferburger, company director of the Singin' in the Rain touring production that will make its way to the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. The actors will be doused in 12,000 litres of water for a few minutes nightly during the musical's run, which begins on September 25.

Based on the 1952 Hollywood film of the same name, Singin' in the Rain was revived as a musical in Britain in 2011, under the direction of Jonathan Church.

Besides the well-loved songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed - such as Good Mornin', Make 'Em Laugh, You Were Meant for Me, and the title number - it also has new choreography by Andrew Wright that stays close to the spirit of the original. Performed by a cast of 27 who hail mainly from South Africa, this touring production began in New Zealand earlier this year, and has played to audiences in Singapore and the Philippines.

"It's a classic feel-good musical," says director Anton Luitingh. "It takes us back to the old days when musicals were created with hard-working actors who showed off their triple-threat talents. We've gone through a lot of musicals that deal with a lot of really tough themes."

He's alluding to the recent trend for shows that deal with subjects such as the murder of prostitutes ( London Road), homelessness ( Home) and religious satire ( The Book of Mormon).

"So it's just nice to have this as a sort of antidote to all the political drama and hardships we face in our lives every day," Luitingh says.

The story revolves around a silent film star named Don Lockwood (a role alternated between Grant Almirall and Duane Alexander). When the advent of "talkies", circa 1927, threatens his film career - his co-star Lina Lamont (Taryn-Lee Hudson) has the face of an angel but a voice that could split eardrums - he and his best friend, Cosmo (Steven van Wyk), must pull out all the stops to save their picture. Meanwhile, will Don win the heart of chorus girl Kathy Selden (Bethany Dickson)?

On the inevitable comparisons with the film classic starring Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, Luitingh says: "The live stage genre is a very different animal. There are many things that happen here that you can't do in a film. It's almost a four-dimensional experience. Splashing the audience is something you don't get to do in the film. Or, where the film shows a shot with two people, you can have a broader frame of reference with other characters doing different things onstage."

That said, the musical also pays homage to the film, complete with nine black-and-white film clips that are screened at key points. The film industry has had to reinvent itself, in response to internet piracy and streaming services, so Singin' in the Rain's theme of transition - and the competition between stage and screen arts - acquires added irony and poignancy.

"I try not to watch the show every night so that when I give advice, it comes from a fresh perspective," says Luitingh, 39. Still, he cannot resist popping in at the point when Don is dancing in the rain. "The vibe is infectious," he says.

“I was obsessed with Singin’ in the Rain as a kid,” says Steven van Wyk.   “I got a video of it for my 10th birthday, and I watched it a lot.”

The South African actor plays Cosmo Brown,  Don Lockwood’s  sidekick in the Hong Kong production,  with equal parts charm and sensitivity. His version of Make ’em Laugh, for instance, is marked by frenetic energy that belies a certain manic desperation, which adds another layer to the role.

Mention this, and van Wyk, 29, nods and says: “On one level, he’s best friends with Don. That’s like being Brad Pitt’s  best friend.  Not everyone can do that. On the other hand, they started doing vaudeville together, and now here they are. Don’s the big star, but Cosmo doesn’t care. He’s happy in his position. He likes making Don happy, and he solves problems.

“With any kind of comic character, there’s always that flip side,” adds the Cape Town native. “The greatest lights cast the darkest shadow. And who knows what Cosmo’s shadow side is? You can psychoanalyse him, but it’s better to keep him in the light.”

A veteran of the stage for close to two decades and choreographer/co-founder of the contemporary Underground Dance Theatre,  van Wyk is no stranger to “the show must go on” moments. “Once, at the end of Make ’em Laugh, I was supposed to burst through a fake wall. But someone had accidentally glued two boards together and reinforced it, so I just bounced off. By the time I managed to kick my way through, the music had long ended. So I just spat out the fake tile between my teeth and said: ‘Never say die.’ The crew, who had seen the show tonnes of times, were cracking up for real.”

Meanwhile, leading lady Bethany Dickson,  27, finds it amusing that she is “an actress playing a girl who wants to be an actress”.

“Times are different now,” she says of the challenge of playing a woman from the 1920s, including the need to  rethink her deportment on stage. “Things have changed dramatically. Women are generally perceived to be equal now. We spoke about this quite a bit in preparation – what women’s roles were then. Kathy was quite adamant to achieve her dreams. It’s definitely harder then than today.”

Backstage, we journalists have sated our curiosity about technical details: is the rainwater recycled? (Yes. It is also filtered and treated for bacteria.) What is the set floor made of, and how long does it take to dry? (A special composite plastic; and 20 minutes, when dried by crew with squeegees during the interval.) How many umbrellas are used in the show? (Nineteen, but about 50 are on hand, in case of malfunctions.)

We meet the "rain man", a tattooed, soft-spoken New Zealander named Adnaan Mansoor, and ask what he likes best about his job. "When I see the rain coming down, and how the audience enjoys it," he replies simply.

Singin' in the Rain, Sept 25-Oct 18, Lyric Theatre, Academy for Performing Arts, 1 Gloucester Rd, Wan Chai, HK$445-HK$995, HK Ticketing. Inquiries: 3759 7617