Zach Theatre's Singin' in the Rain

This stage take on the silver-screen musical really comes alive when it breaks free of the familiar film's grip

“Good mornin’!”: (l-r) Blake Spellacy, Sasha Hutchings, and Luke Hawkins (Photo by Kirk Tuck)

"The sun's in my heart ..."

When Luke Hawkins' Don Lockwood sings that line from the title tune of Singin' in the Rain while dreamily splashing his way across the rain-soaked Topfer stage, you know whereof he speaks. The silent-film matinee idol has fallen head-over-sodden-heels for chorine Kathy Selden, and as embodied by Sasha Hutchings in Zach Theatre's staging, she is indeed a radiant figure who immediately takes up residence in your chest and beams warmth and cheer there throughout the show. Hutchings possesses the kind of charisma that would make you pluck her out of the chorus line and set her center stage, and the soulfulness in her delivery of "You Are My Lucky Star" lifts you into the heavens. And part of what makes her performance so striking is that it owes nothing to Debbie Reynolds' career-making turn in the film.

See, that's the tricky thing about stage shows like this, the ones based on film musicals or jammed with jukebox hits: They trade on our familiarity with the source to get us in the door, but once we're in, that familiarity breeds expectations that the new version will mimic the original – that Elvis will sound just like Elvis, that Mary Poppins will fly just like Julie Andrews, that Don will dance in the rain just like Gene Kelly. We anticipate costumes looking the same, lines being said the same. And therein lies the trap for anyone mounting such shows: If you cater to the audience and hew too closely to the source, you risk having just a pale imitation of the original. Zach has gone to this well increasingly in recent years – Million Dollar Quartet; Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; Mary Poppins; A Christmas Story – and its latest effort exposes the pitfalls for even a theatre that's made this its stock in trade.

The production manages to summon up the Tinseltown of the Twenties in fitting style – the glittering sequined gowns and lux tuxes from costumer Brandon McWilliams would fit right in at a Grauman's Chinese Theatre premiere – and Matthew Webb's vivid lights give the action some of the film's Technicolor pop, especially when filling the translucent panels that frame the stage of Michelle Ney's smartly minimalist set. Plus, the masterful music direction by Allen Robertson, who also conducts the fine pit orchestra, mines all the old-fashioned charm and romance of the Twenties and Thirties standards by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed. (Does Singin' in the Rain qualify as a proto-jukebox musical?)

Conjuring the inhabitants of this Hollywood of yore proves more elusive, however. Under Abe Reybold's direction, most of the performers look to be drawing inspiration from their screen counterparts – an approach evident in line readings that almost perfectly echo ones in the film. But not everyone is able to make a fully realized character from that. As Don's wiseacre wingman Cosmo Brown, Blake Spellacy channels much of the cheeky wit (and even some of the "Make 'Em Laugh" schtick) of Donald O'Connor in the film and makes it his, but Hawkins' Lockwood, who boasts the down-home appeal of Gene Kelly, never quite looks as comfortable playing the studio star as Kelly did. Where Hawkins appears most at home – and where he shines most brightly – is in hoofer mode, especially when dancing with another actor. As he and Spellacy trade rapid-fire footwork in their "Fit as a Fiddle" and "Moses Supposes" tap duets – choreographed with flash and pizazz by Dominique Kelley – Hawkins wears a grin as wide as the proscenium. And when he and Spellacy team with Hutchings for "Good Morning," the joy spreading from the three has sunshine spilling off the stage.

In such moments, as in Hutchings' refreshingly independent turn, the Zach artists seem freed from the grip of the silver-screen Singin' in the Rain and create something alive and original. That's what delivers the real charge in this largely well-constructed and enjoyable show, what takes it from a polished replay to something as new and different as a talkie was in the age of silents.

Singin’ in the Rain

Zach Topfer Theatre, 202 S. Lamar, 512/476-0541,
Through Oct. 29
Running time: 2 hr., 20 min.

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Zach Theatre, Abe Reybold, Dominique Kelley, Allen Robertson, Luke Hawkins, Sasha Hutchings, Blake Spellacy, Michelle Ney, Brandon McWilliams, Matthew Webb

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