Among such questionable manifestations of human enterprise as reconstructing the Eiffel Tower out of match sticks or bringing Abraham Lincoln back to life with wax and computers, we can now add the Broadway musical "Singin' in the Rain."
At a cost of $5 million, the enduring 1952 Hollywood musical has been turned into a stage show, and while one can be impressed by the effort involved and even by the resemblances that have been achieved, a nagging question remains: What is the point? A replica is a replica is a replica.
The lavish spectacle, which opened last night at the Gershwin Theatre, certainly reproduces as much of the movie as is humanly and technologically possible. Betty Comden and Adolph Green may have taken the scissors here and there to their original screenplay about the birthing pains of the talkies, but not so as to destroy its wisecracking spirit. A few additional songs have been added to the score by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, but that simply means an embarrassment of musical riches. Although choreographer (and director) Twyla Tharp has put her stamp on some of the dance numbers, she has not been so foolhardy as to tinker with the dazzling footwork Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen cooked up for "Fit as a Fiddle," "Moses Supposes," "Good Mornin' " or the ebullient title number.
Indeed, at the end of Act 1, there it is: the deserted square with its cheerful lampposts glowing in the rain. Real rain. Sheets of it. And there, too, in the person of dancer Don Correia, is Don Lockwood, the cinema idol who has just fallen in love and wants to shout it to the cloudy skies. A fedora is perched jauntily on his head, just the way Kelly perched it. In his hand is the familiar umbrella, itching to be twirled the way Kelly twirled it. Before long, Correia is splashing jubilantly in puddles, kicking up geysers, offering up his exultant mug to the waterfall gushing from a rain spout -- all to a refrain that has never gone out of our heads.
Lovingly staged as it is, however, the number exists in the past tense and functions, at best, as a tribute. Like the show as a whole, it exploits our existing affections, instead of creating them anew. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but in this instance, it can also be viewed as further evidence of Broadway's rampant sterility.
Of course, transferring a film to the stage requires all manner of changes, but it's not the changes you'll notice at the Gershwin so much as the myriad details that conform to the earlier version -- from those antic fiddles that bob up and down like yo-yos in "Fit as a Fiddle," to the plush Art Deco sofa that serves as the choreographic linchpin for "Good Mornin'." Set designer Santo Loquasto has provided the empty sound stage where Lockwood informs pert inge'nue Kathy Selden that "You Are My Lucky Star," and, true to form, a fog machine and a battery of rainbow lights turn it into an appropriately romantic wonderland.
Ann Roth's costumes won't violate anyone's memories, either. The characters, you may recall, are engaged in the making of an absurd silent-film epic, "The Dueling Cavalier," when the invention of sound hits Hollywood like a lightning bolt. The excessive French finery and the tottering powdered wigs they wear before the camera (and the snappy Roaring Twenties outfits they sport away from it) could have been bused in from the MGM lot.
So determinedly does the stage version struggle to be faithful to the look and lunacy of the film that you are obliged to acknowledge, after a while, that one aspect is dead wrong -- the stars. Besides Correia in the Kelly role, this production employs the services of Peter Slutsker as Donald O'Connor, Mary D'Arcy as Debbie Reynolds, and Faye Grant as Jean Hagen. Unfair as it is to make comparisons -- the movie cast was one of a kind, a felicitous meeting of youth and talent bursting out all over the screen -- this "Singin' in the Rain" forces them. Given the authenticity of the habitat, we can't help expecting the matching fauna to pop up.
None of the Broadway performers can equal his predecessor, however. Worse, required as they are to fill another's shoes, they get no chance to wear their own, beguile us in a new way, assert their own temperaments. All they can hope for under the circumstances is to wrestle our revived memories to a draw. Correia has an extraordinary amount of verve as a dancer, but he's an utterly unpersuasive actor. When he's not hoofing, he projects the slightly embarrassed affability of one who is in over his head and knows it. Slutsker has some goofy charm, but he stumbles through the slam-bang antics of "Make 'Em Laugh" that O'Connor -- aided, no doubt, by the multiple takes movie-making permits -- performed with the glorious discombobulation of a marionette coming unstrung. (Tharp borrows generously from O'Connor's slapstick turns, but then dilutes their effect by spreading them out among five backup dancers.)
While D'Arcy sings far more warmly than Reynolds and is fresh on her feet, she has no spunk whatsoever. If she eludes comparisons with Reynolds, it is by suggesting instead a kinship with a youthful, watered-down Julie Andrews, minding not only her p's and q's, but also her x's, y's and z's. Grant comes away least scarred. She plays Lina Lamont, the bubble-headed cinema queen, who doesn't understand that her squeaky voice is about to bring her career to a screeching halt. ("I make more money than Calvin Coolidge put together," she protests, indignantly.) Still, it's a knock-off of Hagen's inspired movie performance, and as such, can never be more than second best.
On only one significant occasion does "Singin' in the Rain" try to break virgin ground. There was obviously no way "Broadway Rhythm," which Kelly danced in a half-dozen fancifully brash locales, could be put on a stage. To replace it, Tharp has hatched her own version of the big production number that will turn "The Dueling Cavalier" into the hit talkie, "The Dancing Cavalier." It's a curiously nightmarish swirl of gamboling peasants and apache dancers that has Correia, at one point, dueling with his feet, even as several members of the chorus are gliding about the stage on roller skates.
For one crazed moment, "Singin' in the Rain" actually looks like a tripped-out version of "Amadeus." The rest of the time, it doggedly rides the coattails of a cinema masterpiece. Rather like those tableaux vivants, in which well-meaning art lovers pose gallantly behind a gilded frame as Washington and his men crossing the Delaware, it gives three dimensions to what formerly had two. But the added dimension is useless.
Singin' in the Rain. Based on the MGM film. Screenplay and adaptation by Betty Comden and Adolph Green; songs, Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed; directed and choreographed by Twyla Tharp. Scenery, Santo Loquasto; costumes, Ann Roth; lighting, Jennifer Tipton. With Don Correia, Mary D'Arcy, Peter Slutsker, Faye Grant, Hansford Rowe, Richard Fancy. At the Gershwin Theatre.