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Mixed Music

Singin' in the Rain goes soggy; Secret Garden grows delightful

Is it worth going to the theater to see a stage version of Singin' in the Rain when the classic 1952 movie musical is at the video store? The answer to this question -- which applies to both conception and execution -- is yes and no.

In many ways, the stage version of the lampoon of Hollywood's transition from silent pictures to talkies is exactly the same as the film version, only in three dimensions instead of two. At the Theatre Under the Stars production now at the Music Hall, this works to some advantage: seeing and hearing tap-happy feet parade "Good Morning" is enjoyable no matter who's wearing the shoes; and who wouldn't be charmed by flappers booping and dooping that "All I Do (The Whole Night Through) Is Dream of You?" Live or on film, Nacio Herb Brown's graceful music and Arthur Freed's nimble lyrics remain a treat, as do actors on the coordinated move.

But the stage show doesn't come up with the theatrical mechanisms needed to approximate the film's panache, spirit and heart. Framing the story via a radio reporter is intrusive, and too many segues occur in front of the curtains. Nobody figured out what to use in place of the film's close-ups, cross-cuts and montages. So even though the jokes from Betty Comden and Adolph Green's witty text translate to the stage, and even though the stage version includes "You Stepped Out of a Dream," a love song not included in the film, we're never really launched into the story's dreaminess and soul. Paradoxically, it's the film version, not the live one, that seems three-dimensional.

Charles Repole directs with a nod to nostalgia, and to a point this feels right. From blocking to strategic pauses, he pays tribute to what came before him. Repole frequently clears the stage for the footwork, as well he should. But some scenes get lost on the cavernous stage, while others -- including the famously funny "Moses Supposes," in which the stars who hope to jump from the silents to the talkies are taught tongue twisters as an elocution exercise -- are so awkwardly compartmentalized that they seem to be going through growing pains. And the climax doesn't zing. For better and for worse, Repole's direction is dutiful.

The same can be said for Linda Goodrich's choreography. "Beautiful Girl" is a Ziegfeld Follies-type number that's more derivative than tongue-in-cheek. The memorable ballet sequence in "Broadway Melody" adequately evolves from innocence to experience along the Great White Way, but you're not quite inspired to utter its famous proclamation, "Gotta dance!" And the best that can be said about the title number is that from rain gutter to lamppost, it replicates what we got from Gene Kelly.

Dirk Lumbard, however, does not. Though he dances up a storm as Don Lockwood, the part Kelly played, he lacks Kelly's masculine verve. Lumbard's athleticism is pleasing, but he looks like he's going through somebody else's motions. He croons well, and comes across as a nice guy, but his character is supposed to have a certain take-charge appeal as well. The show lacks warmth because there's no chemistry between him and the chorus girl he falls in love with.

As that chorus girl, Christina Saffran is so wonderfully wholesome that Debbie Reynolds, who originated the character on-screen, would surely give her a pat on the head. Saffran radiates cheery goodness and sings such numbers as "You Are My Lucky Star" in the sweetest of dulcet tones. Her dancing gets the job done.

As the wisecracking sidekick Cosmo Brown, the role Donald O'Connor used to make his career, Randy Rogel does considerably more than that. With snap in his body as well as his attitude, Rogel does indeed "Make 'Em Laugh." So does Nancy Ringham, as the platinum-blond bimbo who, courtesy of her curves, looks the part of a starlet, but who, courtesy of a screeching voice, will never sound like one in talkies. When the actress sings, "What's Wrong with Me?" you can't help but smile.

As the head of Monumental Pictures, William Hardy is monumentally fun because of how enthusiastic his mogul is, even when being "handled." The supporting cast adds punch and the chorus supplies dazzle. The colorful costumes complement Michael Anania's eye-grabbing sets, which encompass Graumann's Chinese Theatre, palatial homes, studio back lots -- and, of course, a rain-drenched Hollywood boulevard. In fact, singing in the rain is the bane and the boon of Singin' in the Rain, for no matter how splashy the scene might be, you keep thinking about how it has to occur at the end of the (very long) first act so that the crew can mop up at intermission. And the tapping is dubbed in this scene. What would Gene Kelly say?

Excluding the concessions inherent in any scaled-down musical -- spare scenery, thinned chorus, minimal orchestra -- Main Street Theater mounts a stunning production of The Secret Garden, the lovely 1991 adaption of Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic children's story. If anything, Main Street's intimacy makes Marsha Norman's affectionate book and lyrics and Lucy Simon's spellbinding music even more touching. To say The Secret Garden is a family show is true, but cheapening. This is the most sensitive offering of the season.

In the key role of Mary, the lonely orphan girl who blooms as she tends to her invalid cousin Colin, his embittered widower father Archibald and their neglected garden, young Julia Krohn is a revelation. Preternaturally controlled, the child actress is winning even when acting contrary. Though she could benefit from a body mike, Krohn sings worriedly in "It's a Maze," resolutely in "Show Me the Key," sweetly in "The Girl I Mean to Be" and beseechingly in "Letter Song," staying on key and even harmonizing. Her English accent passes muster and her dancing in "Come Spirit, Come Charm" is so self-assured it's no wonder Colin chooses then to step out of his wheelchair for the first time.

As the imperious, frightened Colin, Erik Eisele does a fine job. Joe Kirkendall, deeply sympathetic as the haunted Archibald, is especially effective in how immediate he makes "Race You to the Top of the Morning," a veiled lullaby to Archibald's pain. Mark Arvin, singing so gloriously that he positively beams, is radiant as Dickon, the local lad who befriends Mary. His great goodwill is matched by that of Michelle Holliman's Martha, the kindly housemaid. Inversely, Laura Chapman makes Mrs. Medlock a scarily stern housekeeper. Through burning need, Ilich Guardiola turns Archibald's duty-burdened brother into more than a stock counterpoint, while Susan Kenyon, through a soaring voice, shines as Lily, the memory of a wife Archibald won't let go of. The chorus -- one of the best I've encountered in Houston -- establishes crucial atmosphere, not just through song and movement, but also through demeanor, as if they, too, were characters in the play.

Director Rob Babbitt conveys much via impressions. In his deceptively simple, highly effective blocking, he has the songs and the sentiments take center stage, not concerning himself too much with the accouterments, which turn out to be largely unnecessary (though the literal picture-book backdrops are economically keen). What he spends lavish attention on, instead, are the costumes; they're precious and vital. Though the segues between reality, flashback and fantasy are problematic, and though Mary's opening of the garden door -- the miracle that's the climax to Act One -- is poorly conceived, Babbitt's biggest mistake is how brief he makes the curtain calls. For it's no secret: Main Street's Secret Garden is a garden of delights.

Singin' in the Rain plays through December 17 at the Music Hall, 810 Bagby, 622-TUTS.

The Secret Garden plays through December 23 at Hamman Hall, Rice University (entrance no. 14 off Rice Blvd.), 524-6706.

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