Singin' in the Rain, long-time Muny producer Paul Blake's swan song, is nearly all wet

Jul 21, 2011 at 4:00 am

After two promising productions at the start of the Muny season, it's back to business as usual with this week's offering, Singin' in the Rain, the tuneful stage adaptation of the celebrated 1952 MGM movie musical about deception in 1920s Hollywood, just as silent movies are being pushed aside for talking pictures. Those Muny attendees who already cherish the original film version of Singin' in the Rain might find enough in this staging to elicit a trace of nostalgia. But those who've never seen the movie might leave Forest Park wondering why the film is so beloved.

Theater can be unpredictable. Three weeks ago Kiss Me, Kate lost outdoor rehearsal time owing to rain, yet on opening night everything seemed to click. Last weekend the Muny was dark, which means Singin' in the Rain should have enjoyed an abundance of rehearsal time onstage. But the opening-night performance felt ragged and unsure. As a reviewer I tend to ignore first-night mishaps; I assume miscues will get straightened out during the week. But on Monday night there were so many errors — a suit jacket whose sleeve was ripped when it shouldn't have been but wouldn't rip when it was supposed to; a cake-in-the-face gag that fell flat; a ladder that wasn't properly locked off — as to indicate a pattern of inattention to details on the part of director Rick Conant and his creative team.

And not just details. They also missed some of the big things. In order to re-create the feel of the movie, you have to think visually. Onscreen the colors are so vivid as to dazzle a viewer's eyeballs. But there's nothing eye popping here. As usual we sense that the Muny costumer and scenic designer never spoke to each other. There's no coordination, and the sets are mostly drab.

The principal actors are talented, but they're fighting an uphill battle. The plucky Shannon M. O'Bryan has done terrific work at the Muny in seasons past (42nd Street and Grease spring to mind), but even her vivacity cannot overcome the general insipidness of the Kathy Selden character. As sidekick Cosmo Brown, the appealing Curtis Holbrook does his best to emulate the calisthenics of Donald O'Connor's memorable "Make 'Em Laugh," but onstage the number was energetic without being funny.

Tony Yazbeck plays the Gene Kelly role with authority. Indeed, the production is pretty much by the numbers until Yazbeck cuts loose on his first ballad, "You Stepped Out of a Dream," sending out notes that soar over the free seats and land somewhere in the upper parking lot. But later in Act One, he's torpedoed by the lack of special lighting and prop effects that should make "You Were Meant for Me" feel like a dream come to life. And although the staging of the title tune (surely one of the most infectious songs ever written) is a close approximation of Kelly's choreography in the movie, on opening night Yazbeck seemed to be executing the number rather than taking joy in it. When he aped the iconic image of Kelly hanging from the lamppost at song's end, the generous audience applause seemed to be as much for the memory of Gene Kelly as for Yazbeck. But he's solid, and he'll surely grow more assured in coming nights.

Then there is Michele Ragusa, who amplifies the supporting role of nasal-enhanced silent-screen star Lina Lamont into a deliciously droll star turn. Ragusa has stolen everything of value from Jean Hagen's caricature performance in the movie, then ratcheted it up an octave to present a lovably monstrous cretin. Ragusa sings "What's Wrong with Me?" — the one song that is not heard in the original movie. Usually such additions become intrusions, but not here. Ragusa holds the Muny stage with ease.

Nevertheless, the Muny's Singin' in the Rain is mostly the kind of uninspired fare I hope will cease with the change of artistic leadership after this season. And yet, during those moments when the dancing is at full frenetic throttle, and when taps are crackling like six-shooters across tabletops and risers, there's a fleeting sense that all's right with the world.