You certainly could not accuse Kyle DeSantis, the producer of the Drury Lane Oakbrook's huge new production of "Singin' in the Rain" of failing to deliver the wet stuff — as required for the title number and as immortalized by Gene Kelly in the 1952 MGM movie that spawned this far-inferior 1983 stage musical. With the front rows happily rustling the plastic ponchos provided by the theater, the big Act 1 close in Bill Jenkins' show does not so much bring to mind a cloudburst as it does someone turning on all the showers at once in the men's locker room at the YMCA.
Industrial-strength spigots spurt. Water gushes. And Tony Yazbeck, the genial eleventh-hour star of this show, smiles and dances in the rain. It is all about that subtle and that surprising.
By the recent, formidable standards of the Drury Lane, this clunky, conventional and underpaced "Singin' in the Rain" has to count as a disappointment, even though the crowd Friday night seemed to enjoy itself. In fairness, it should also be noted that Jenkins' production was inevitably stymied by the loss of its initial lead actor, Sean Palmer, who was injured during the preview period (hence the delayed opening, allowing the eager Yazbeck time to quickly get here from New York and find his galoshes). As fans of the movie well know, this piece requires very particular three-way chemistry among the trio playing the roles originated on-screen by Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor. And although Yazbeck and Jenny Guse are perfectly pleasant and competent, if rather bland, in the two lead roles of big movie star and emerging ingenue, you just don't feel like they have much going on between each other, be their days rainy or sunny. Only Matthew Crowle, whose hugely enjoyable Cosmo Brown is by far the best thing in this show, really finds enough of a charismatic through line, enough unpredictable life, to really make the structural clouds roll by.
"Singin' in the Rain" is a difficult piece and not because it has to rain. For starters, the musical is far too slavish to the movie. This is a story set during the coming of talkies and, as such, it involves a lot of faux-period movies that play out on an onstage screen. In one of the many clips, the use of Reynolds herself (a frequent performer at this theater) deserves the laughs it gets and pleasures it provides. But the rest of these energy-sucking movies are slow, and not remotely credible as actual period flicks.
When it comes to what we see live, the start of this show is especially tricky — instead of a bona fide opening number, we get a protracted sequence at a Hollywood premiere that involves moving clumps of characters around the stage and spitting out all manner of exposition. The best productions of "Singin' in the Rain" find the right theatrical metaphor to make all this work — directors attempting this show really have to continue the work that was not done right in 1983. This one just doesn't have that metaphor. It does have a lot of sliding scenery, yet nothing in front of Kevin Depinet's set ever seems to glide in comfort.
And thus one of the most crucial qualities of this particular piece — sheer smoothness — remains elusive.
The comedy is similarly uneven. Melissa Van Der Schyff, who plays Lina Lamont, the diva with the crummy voice who gets felled by the talkies, has some lively and amusing moments, not to mention a fine squawk. But she also falls into the main trap of the role — which is to start her character at the far-right end of the dial, leaving her absolutely nowhere to go beyond mere repetition, when the stakes rise and the action gains comedic heat. The energy, along with the choreography, is jagged throughout — there are moments that gel very nicely, followed by others that look like a complete mess. The whole does not feel fully secure. So when those showers turn on, it's quite a relief for everybody, being as there really is nothing quite like singing and dancing in the rain. "Doo-dloo-doo-doo-doo/Doo-dloo-doo-doo-doo-doo."
When: Through Jan. 13
Where: 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes
Tickets: $35-46 at 630-530-0111 or visit drurylaneoakbrook.com