Monday, November 26, 2012

'Singin' in the Rain' Shimmers on Stage -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Singin' in the Rain
Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook Terrace, IL
Thru January 13, 2013

Many great musicals have started on the stage and then were adapted into movie versions; My Fair Lady, West Side Story, The Music Man, Oklahoma, Cabaret, South Pacific and Fiddler on the Roof are just a few of the classics that have followed this path.

More recently, Chicago was turned into an Oscar-winning movie and Rent, Dreamgirls, Mamma Mia and, opening on Christmas, Les Miserables, have gone the stage-to-screen route.

Particularly over the past 20 years or so, there have also been several examples of non-musical films being the source for new stage musicals—The Producers, Hairspray, Billy Elliot, Legally Blonde, Sister Act, Shrek and many more—with the first two proving so popular on-stage that musical movie versions were made from them.

A good bit less common, though not unheard of, is a musical that started its life on celluloid subsequently—often years down the road—being turned into a stage musical. This perhaps has been most prevalent in world of Disney, with animated movie musicals—The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid—being reimagined for the stage, and later, a live version of Mary Poppins being produced.

If it isn’t obvious, producers—of both movies and theatrical works—like giving audiences “titles” with built-in appeal. Though not always the case—sometimes quite deservedly—pre-existing popular affinity is generally good for box office.

So along with Singin’ in the Rain being a bit atypically a high-profile movie musical that didn’t originate on stage, it seems somewhat peculiar that a live version of the beloved 1952 Gene Kelly film didn't make a splash onstage until 1983.

And though I saw and very much enjoyed Singin’ productions in the early ’00s in Melbourne, Australia, and at the now defunct Drury Lane Evergreen Park—and my friend Paolo recently saw a current London West End version he said was great—for whatever reason, Singin’ in the Rain has not been a staple of Broadway revivals, regional theater productions or even community theater renditions.

It should be.

…as evidenced by the thoroughly enjoyable production now running at the Drury Lane Oakbrook, where even a crippling injury to the leading man couldn’t shake the theater from again delivering a crowd-pleaser with outstanding production values.

Given the story of Singin’ in the Rain—the stage version hews so closely to the movie that no “book” writer is credited, only screenwriters Betty Comden & Adolph Green—which in good part is about entertainers adapting, to movies with sound and actresses who squeak, the real-life circumstance of DLO’s star substitution is both noteworthy and impressive.

For several months, ads for Drury Lane’s Singin’ in the Rain heralded Sean Palmer, an actor with solid Broadway credits who was to star in the Gene Kelly role, as Don Lockwood.

Then just a couple weeks ago, I read that Palmer suffered a knee injury and though he would gamely perform in a few more previews, he had to undergo surgery and was replaced by Tony Yazbeck, another actor with a solid Broadway resume (he was in Gypsy, A Chorus Line and Oklahoma, among others).

It says a lot about DLO’s stature that the suburban Chicago theater is able to snare nationally esteemed actors such as Palmer—and then, at the drop of a hat, Yazbeck. But the truth is, that at least for the last few years, Drury Lane has been staging musicals that approach Broadway quality (their productions of Ragtime, Sweeney Todd, The Sound of Music and Hairspray have all been splendid).

Now, I feel obliged to give the caveat that the show I saw on Saturday afternoon was officially still a preview, and just Yazbeck’s second performance in Oakbrook Terrace, but if you didn’t know that, you wouldn’t have guessed. Yazbeck stepped into the role like an old pro and impressively imbued Lockwood with a dashing aplomb that never felt forced.

I don’t care if he has done the role before (at St. Louis' MUNY Theater); to re-memorize all the lines, songs and dances—not to mention film the old silent scenes for the movies within the, uh, musical—so adroitly in such a short time is rather impressive.

So too were Matthew Crowle, who if not quite Donald O’Connor as Cosmo Brown, was a reasonably good facsimile (his dancing is excellent), Jenny Guse, who showcases a great voice as Kathy Selden, and Melissa Van Der Schyff who appropriately doesn't as Lina Lamont.

Given that the “on the boards” version of Singin’ in the Rain essentially replicates a beloved 60-year-old movie—which itself was impressively stitched together with songs written years previously by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed—as a stage work it doesn’t feel quite as organic as shows with vice-versa origins.

On its own artistic merits, I can’t rank it among my very favorite stage musicals—it’s #71 here—although the film is my favorite movie musical.

But the songs are infectious—“Fit as a Fiddle,” “Make Em Laugh,” “Moses Supposes,” “Good Morning,” and the title tune—and everything at Drury Lane is well done, including the rain scenes.

Whether you love the movie or have never seen it, this fine production of Singin’ in the Rain is a whole lot of fun. Having recently seen a sensational version of Les Miserables (now at the Cadillac Palace) I can’t say that Singin’ is a stage piece on that level, but it will put a song in your heart and a smile on your face. And Yazbeck especially deserves plenty of kudos; the role already feels like one he’s been playing for years.

Although Singin’ in the Rain feels rather familiar—perhaps because I just watched the movie again on Thanksgiving—it still seems odd that this is a show that isn’t frequently performed onstage. While the film being so fantastic (and seemingly available at any library) might render this rendition not quite a “must see,” it is nonetheless a live musical that almost all who see it are sure to like.

And with a few scenic enhancements—though DLO’s sets are impressive for the size of its stage—it wouldn’t be impossible to imagine this production being good enough to run on Broadway. They just wouldn’t need to make a movie out of it afterwards.

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