Something quite surprising happens during the first-act finale of "Singin' in the Rain," which is being given an enthusiastic, glitzy revival at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N. J. It's not because the audience applauds the gracefully cascading rain that drenches the set in which the hero sings and dances the title tune. After all, rain, which in life is often as inconvenient as it is necessary, boggles the mind of a theatergoer susceptible to special effects.
And, as special effects go, rain is certainly as much fun as a crashing chandelier, a hovering helicopter or a twirling beast who turns into a prince before your eyes: the water falling on the stage is real. It soaks the actor, who is also real and must return to the stage a few minutes later dry as a bone. There's a bifocal kind of pleasure in witnessing this conjunction of soggy physical fact and blissful fiction. Even while you wonder how it's done, you respond to its emotional impact within the show's loveliest production number.
Yet something even more important occurs during the first-act finale at the Paper Mill Playhouse: the realization that "Singin' in the Rain," which began life (and continues to exist) as the classic 1952 MGM musical, has become an entertainment continuum. It's a movie. It's a soundtrack album. It's a book (the Betty Comden and Adolph Green screenplay), published by Viking. It's a video. It's a stage show. It's a movie, and on and on. Having been an admirer of the film from the time of its original release, I'm astonished not by the way the memory of the film overwhelms its subsequent incarnations but by the way the film endures within them.
The soundtrack album is a delight, though it contains more tap-dancing than you always want to listen to. The screenplay is elegantly funny to read. The video is the movie projected small but true, as if you were watching it on the screen of Radio City Music Hall from the last row of the top balcony. The show? Well, that's why I went out to the Paper Mill Playhouse, where it will be until Oct. 23.
To make a stage show out of an original movie musical, especially one as triumphantly cinematic as "Singin' in the Rain," is to reverse the usual evolutionary process by which our popular entertainment grows, always in search of an ever broader audience base. A book is turned into a play, the play into a movie, the movie into a stage musical, the stage musical into a movie musical. That's the end of the line, unless the original property somehow becomes a television series. You can't get any broader-based than that. To restructure a film musical for the physical limitations of the live theater is, technically speaking, to evolve monkey from man.
The stage adaptation of "Singin' in the Rain" never finds soaring theatrical equivalents for the esthetic achievements of the original film, which, in addition to being a musical, is about movies. The medium is a major part of the movie's message. The show is old material recycled and scaled down. Yet the old material is of a quality that is frequently enchanting, at least in part for the manner in which it evokes the original and, from time to time, for the way in which it manages to catch something of the tone and voice of the original.
This can't have been easy for the people responsible for the Paper Mill production, though they do have the Comden and Green stage adaptation and the haunting score by Nacio Herb Brown (music) and Arthur Freed (lyrics). The film, a hilarious, lavishly produced recollection of Hollywood's transition from silent films to sound, isn't likely to be topped. It remains one of the most enduring works of everyone concerned with it, especially Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, who together directed and choreographed it, and the stars: Mr. Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Donald O'Connor and Jean Hagen.
I didn't see the stage show's original 1985 Broadway production, which was directed and choreographed by Twyla Tharp, but I suspect I might then have been as impatient as were most of the New York drama critics. It's not fun watching something you admire a lot being bent into a new, unfamiliar shape. It's possible that Ms. Tharp's formidable reputation as an innovative choreographer contributed to the critics' sense of anticlimax. It may also be that seeing the show today, in the less fraught atmosphere surrounding the Paper Mill production, one isn't so quick to find fault.
Here's a show that mimics the film's book, look and choreography with spirit, even as the scale is made smaller to fit the Paper Mill stage (quite large, even by Broadway standards) and the demands made on the live actor-singer-dancers. James Rocco, the director, and Linda Goodrich, who shares the choreography credit with him, are especially successful in two production numbers: the Act I "Singin' in the Rain" finale and "Beautiful Girl," a sound-stage sequence that satirizes a Ziegfeld Follies routine. You know the type. The chorines parade down a staircase wearing skimpy silver spangles and the sort of elaborate, manically wild headgear designed to test the most swanlike necks.
Michael Gruber, as the silent-screen star played by Mr. Kelly, does what Mr. Kelly never had to do in the film, that is, dance and sing at the same time, which takes not only talent but a sturdy constitution. He looks like a handsome young Sid Caesar, sings well and convinces as he dances in the rain, and later when he dances the ambitious "Broadway Ballet."
Randy Rogel is a stand-out in the Donald O'Connor role of sidekick. He has the energy and humor to carry off the exuberant "Make 'em Laugh" song-and-dance and, with Mr. Gruber, he turns "Moses Supposes" into something close to a show stopper. This song, written by Ms. Comden, Mr. Green and Roger Edens, though they aren't credited in the Paper Mill program, is the culmination of a priceless sequence in which the silent-movie stars are being taught proper elocution for their forthcoming adventures in talkies.
The actresses have a more difficult time. Christina Saffran, as the ingenue, has a big, belting singing voice in the Broadway style, but when she speaks the timbre tends to pierce. She sounds a little like the bird-brained screen star within the show whose voice has doomed her hopes in talkies. This role, originated by Jean Hagen, is played with great humor by the tall, platinum-blond Deborah Jolly. Yet Ms. Jolly's work seems undermined by the sound system, which sometimes makes her unintelligible when delivering her high-pitched, squeaky speeches. Note, too, Daniela Panessa, who appears in the "Broadway Ballet" in the femme fatale role danced in the film by Cyd Charisse. She's long, lean and seemingly elastic, which is just right.
This production includes two songs that were not in the film: "You Stepped Out of a Dream," a Brown-Freed standard from "Ziegfeld Girl" (1941), nicely sung by Mr. Gruber, and "What's Wrong With Me?," sung by Ms. Jolly, which is not great. As presented here, it seems to slow the show without, as they say, stopping it. Yet, whatever the reason, this new "Singin' in the Rain" appears to be less a sacrilege than a charming salute.