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So Many Raindrops

Singin' in the Rain soaks up applause at Theatre Memphis.

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I should begin by acknowledging that Singin' in the Rain is obviously a big hit for Theatre Memphis, and it does the source material proud. Also, I should confess that I'm not convinced that the source material — charming as it is — lives up to its reputation as the greatest movie musical of all time. How that material benefits in being translated to the stage has never been clear in the least.

Forced to pick a personal favorite movie musical, I'd be hard-pressed to choose between The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Meet Me in St. Louis, and (seriously) South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut. Factor in some solid adaptations from the stage like G.W. Pabst's The Threepenny Opera and Cabaret, and I'm not even sure that Singin' in the Rain, a romantic farce from 1952, with an astonishing cast and a tasty but mismatched batch of recycled songs, would even crack my Top 10 list.

The best thing about this tuneful story, apart from the dancing and chemistry between the principal players, has always been the delicious film-on-film satire. In its original state, Rain is a movie about movies and about how Hollywood transitioned from silence to sound. And because of that, any stage adaptation, no matter how breathtaking the dance numbers, will always be missing the crucial elements that give the film its edge. So every production, no matter how lean or lush, will be an experiment to discover whether or not the funny bordering on flimsy material matters in the absence of Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen, and perhaps, more importantly, the flickering silver screen.

The answer, as applied to Theatre Memphis' pull-out-the-stops production, is a qualified but emphatic yes. TM's take on the beloved film, competently helmed by actor-turned-director Ann Marie Hall, proves that great performances will always bring audiences to their feet. But everything about this top-notch show, including performances by Rob Hanford, Stephen Garrett, Claire Hayner, and Lydia Hart, is shackled to the ghost of the original. That prevents even the liveliest song and dance numbers from having a life of their own. And with Hanford and Garrett ably standing in for Kelly and O'Connor, the numbers are plenty lively. Come curtain calls, that may be all that matters. And speaking of curtain calls, the whole cast should take an extra bow following the sofa-spinning, show-stopping, tap-dancing romp through "Good Morning." No point in wasting all that applause, is there?

If TM's cast lacks the chemistry of the original, there's no shortage of talent onstage. Performing-arts power couple John and Mary B. Hemphill turn in a pair of classically funny performances as R.F. Simpson, a Monumental Pictures bigwig, and Miss Dinsmore, an outmatched, increasingly untethered voice teacher unable to coax round tones from her flat charge. Claire Hayner is perfectly obnoxious as the vocally challenged starlet Lina Lamont, who also serves as the story's chief villain, and Bennett Wood shows off his slapstick skills as the toupee-wearing diction coach who introduces "Moses Supposes," one of the few songs in Singin' in the Rain that doesn't feel like it was shoehorned into the original screenplay.

Christopher McCollum's scenic design is sumptuous, and I can't deny that when it rains onstage it's easy to forget how excessive it all is. But when Hanford's mic gets wet, the audience is yanked out of the show's famous title number by garbled vocals and anxiety sets in. Concern for the actors overwhelms concern for the characters. But the crowd goes wild anyway.

A handful of silent film sequences — especially a swashbuckling sword fight shot at Rhodes College — are a real delight.

Through June 30th

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