Members of Aurora Theatre's audience audibly gasped at the crescendo of "Make 'em Laugh" in Singin' in the Rain. As the puckish sidekick Cosmo Brown, Jeremy Wood steps into Donald O'Connor's tap shoes for a theatrical version of the 1952 MGM musical. In "Make 'em Laugh's" celebration of physical comedy, Wood did pratfalls, wrestled a dummy, and swam atop a board. For the capper, Wood emulated O'Connor by running up a wall and doing a back flip in a stunning feat of stage acrobatics.
Producing Singin' in the Rain represents a Himalayan challenge for Aurora. As one of the best musicals — and best movies, period — ever made, the material engenders enormous amounts of audience goodwill. It also sets an impossibly high standard for spectators familiar with the dance moves of O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds and co-director/star Gene Kelly, some of the greatest entertainers in film history.
Fortunately, Aurora's Singin' in the Rain doesn't have to be better than the originals. The performers just have to be good enough, technically, while investing their work with as much joy as possible. For the most part, Aurora succeeds with Singin' in the Rain and makes some no doubt arduous numbers look easy.
Directed by Anne Towns, Singin' in the Rain takes place during Hollywood's transition from silent films to talkies. Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont (Justin Tanner and Pamela Gold) reign as the most beloved couple at the box office, even though in reality, down-to-earth Don dislikes Lina's vulgar manners and air-siren speaking voice. The production cleverly uses black-and-white video projection to replicate Don and Lina's hammy period romances.
Everything turns topsy-turvy when the first musical, The Jazz Singer, causes a sensation for "talking pictures." (Imagine the current mania for 3-D movies, only exponentially higher.) Writers Betty Comden and Adolf Green, who adapted their screenplay for the stage, craft great gags about misplaced microphones, disastrous elocution lessons, and the perils of sound going out of sync with images.
Meanwhile, Don learns humility through his romance with chorus girl and serious actress Kathy (Leslie Bellair). Towns' production escapes the shadow of the film with the numbers not in the original version, beginning with "You Stepped Out of a Dream." Don serenades Kathy after meeting her at a bus stop, and adorably enlists passers-by to join in as back-up singers and dancers. In Act Two, Lina gets her own solo, "What's Wrong With Me?" and Gold delightfully sings in the most misguided registers possible.
Singin' in the Rain boasts a repertoire of enormously sunny, catchy songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed. Jen MacQueen takes inspiration from the original choreography, with complex moves filled with funny little bits of business as well as logistic challenges, such as Tanner's puddly soft-shoe during the title song. Tanner and Wood radiate ease and good cheer without coming across as cocky.
As a dancer, Bellair keeps up with her co-stars, but proves more of a tense presence, as if you can see the effort she's making. Tanner and Bellair make pleasing matches for the show's less memorable duets like "You Are My Lucky Star." (Speaking of stage adaptations of movies, Tanner and Bellair played the title roles in the Alliance Children's Theatre versions of Aladdin and Mulan, respectively.)
On stage, Singin' in the Rain features some mildly problematic structural quirks. The first half ends with "Singin' in the Rain" (presumably to let the crew mop up the "rainwater" during the intermission), making for a 90-minute first act and a second act about half that. Plus, Act Two excises the film's epic "Broadway Melody" number, so Don, the story's presumed hero, barely does anything in the play's latter section.
But is Don really the protagonist? Watch the movie closely — which you can do on the Fox Theatre's big, big screen Aug. 11 — and you might find that the real hero is the cinematic medium. Singin' in the Rain works beautifully as the funniest of screen musicals, but it also holds up as a post-modern analysis of cinema and its component parts: its vaudeville origins, its special effects, its fusion of sound and image. The film's "Beautiful Girl" includes a fashion show that amounts to a Technicolor show reel. "Broadway Melody" removes spoken dialogue for musical spectacle, and its balletic centerpiece with Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse reduces the aesthetic to simply orchestral music and bodies in motion. It's like cinema at its purest form.
Singin' in the Rain's stage version plays for smaller stakes than the film's bid for artistic perfection. The timing in some of the play's set pieces, such as the red-carpet premiere night scenes, falls a little flat. Those complaints don't amount to the proverbial hill of beans compared to the talent and likability of the leads, which send the audience out singing, "What a glorious feeling — I'm happy again."
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