by Michael Bowen & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & t's arguably the finest movie musical of all time. Why should any theater, much less a nonprofessional theater, take on the challenge of attempting to produce Singin' in the Rain? Images of Gene Kelly (wet) and Donald O'Connor (wacky) are imprinted in our collective memory. Going up against near-perfection: It's a losing proposition.
Isn't it? No. Three reasons: Cameron Lewis throwing around his rubber limbs in "Make 'em Laugh." Alyssa Calder-Day stepping up to the mike and selling the romance of "You Are My Lucky Star." Lewis and Calder-Day joining Andrew Ware Lewis in the tap-leap-glide of "Good Morning" -- a threesome dancing their hearts out, flopping joyously onto a couch, looking as if they were actually having fun up there.
Live theater has the element of risk that make its triumphs that much more impressive: The singer who has to hit the right note; the three people tapping in sync, taking it to the limit but flirting with pratfalls; the choreographed comic stunt that's gotta be right and gotta be now. Back in 1951, they took six months (and lots of multiple takes) to film Singin' in the Rain. They had a safety net, but they lacked the immediacy of an audience's chuckles, gasps and applause.
So attempting a live version is worth it; unfortunately, the result, in Kathie Doyle-Lipe's production of the musical's stage version (through Oct. 29), is uneven. Among this show's lead actors, technical elements and individual numbers, there are both triumphs and mediocrities.
But more triumphs. Foremost among them: Cameron Lewis as the goofy sidekick, Cosmo Brown. Lewis -- he's Pee-Wee Herman with a deep voice and loose limbs -- has mastered the arch remark served with a side of sarcasm and a silly dance kick. In "Make 'em Laugh," Lewis dons a Viking helmet, spills out of a cart, splits a seam or two, performs a frantic Russian dance, throws himself around like a rag doll, loses a fight with a dummy, pirouettes in and out of control and convinces us that one of his legs has a mind of its own.
Calder-Day invested "You Are My Lucky Star" with genuine feeling, and her dancing, especially in "Good Morning," is delightful. Capable of projecting that girl-next-door quality, she's the kind of ing & eacute;nue you find yourself rooting for.
Her efforts are accompanied by this show's many other delights. Dougie Dawson combines cigar-chomping, skittery feet and a hunched-over, side-mouth cackles to caricature the dimwit studio head. Doyle-Lipe keeps the stage busy with extras. In a scene involving multiple takes with a prickly film star, Tom Heppler adds a note of comic exasperation as the director. Susan Berger and Jan Wanless do their usual great job with costumes: tuxedos, mink stoles, sequined gowns. And in a number called "You Were Meant for Me," which calls for the hero to dazzle his girl with all the special effects on a movie set, technical director Peter Hardie and lighting and set designer David Baker pull off spotlights, mist and moonlight.
The buzz on this show was the multimedia angle, that Hardie and Baker were going to pull off multiple sets, old-timey motion pictures and actual rain right there on the Civic's Main Stage. The movies are successful; the rain, less so. Here's why: The movies, because they're spoofs of all the ham acting in the old silent films, are amusing because they call attention to their own limitations. The rain, trying hard to impress us, undermines the musical number it's supposed to support. On film, we expect rain -- that's what studios do. But in a live production, it's an event. Which causes a problem: The rain itself becomes the focus.
Don Lockwood (the Gene Kelly character) doesn't care about getting wet -- he just fell in love. But here the rain spatters hard, and Andrew Ware Lewis strains to be heard; pretty soon, the title song becomes a stunt to be endured instead of a love song to be savored. In Ware Lewis' defense, it takes courage just to get up and swing around that lamppost (and not only because, in this production, it's a wobbly-scary lamppost): He's imitating an icon of American cinema. But how it got done took precedence over why it was being done: They sacrificed emotion to logistics on this one, folks.
The silent-film spoofs, in contrast, were marvelous: hammy expressions, jerky swordfights inside our own Masonic Temple, and success at the complicated business of roughening up the footage when the plot calls for out-of-sync sound and other technical glitches. In the film sequences, the comedy served the play: Don and Lina really do look silly up there acting silently in a world that's gone talkie.
A musical of this magnitude clearly taxed the limits of what the Civic is capable of doing, but the technical elements weren't the only places where the seams showed. As Lina Lamont, the silent-film star with a voice... not fit for talkies, Corinne Logarbo isn't squeaky enough at her first vocal entrance. Logarbo comes into her own in the second act's "What's Wrong With Me?" but it's a climb she should have made in the first act.
In the Gene Kelly role, Ware Lewis generally dances better than he sings, and sings better than he acts. In the tap duets and trios, though, it's Ware Lewis that your eyes go to: His feet glide, his arms undulate, he's under control. He can deliver a convincing love song, even if his voice faltered in the lower register during the reprise of "You Were Meant for Me." Too many pasted-on smiles and flattened gee-whiz moments, however, undercut his character's enthusiasm.
"Uneven" is an easy word to throw around: Nearly every show has its strengths and weaknesses. In the Civic's Singin' in the Rain, Ware Lewis' tap-dancing, Lewis' physical comedy and Calder-Day's lyrical tone all create standout moments. On the other hand, the flatness of some of the joke deliveries, along with the flaccidness of the big tap numbers and the colored-umbrellas finale, were eye-rollingly bad.
This show aims high but falls short in places. It's seriously uneven.