BWW Reviews: What a Glorious Feeling - Getting a Glimpse Into the Silver Screen's SINGIN' IN THE RAIN

BWW Reviews: What a Glorious Feeling - Getting a Glimpse Into the Silver Screen's SINGIN' IN THE RAIN

Now through June 2, 2013, at the Theatre at the Center in Munster, Indiana (and not as far away as you might think) is a new play that gives us an interesting look into the making of one of the most enduring work of art produced by Hollywood in its Golden Age of Movie Musicals, the 1952 classic MGM film, "Singin' in the Rain." The movie, which starred Gene Kelly as a silent film star making the transition to talking pictures (and to singing and dancing pictures, no less), was co-directed by Kelly and Stanley Donen. Donald O'Connor and the very young Debbie Reynolds also starred, and the resulting picture is consistently rated by film buffs and fans as one of the best film musicals ever made. (If you haven't seen it, run and do so now! Well, as soon as you've finished reading this review, and bought your tickets to "What a Glorious Feeling!")

What film audiences at the time didn't know was that Gene Kelly (the legendary film star making what was probably his most indelible screen appearance) was, while married to the actress Betsy Blair, also in love with the dancer and choreographer Jeanne Coyne, who had just divorced from her marriage to Stanley Donen, Kelly's directorial partner. This fact is at the heart of "What a Glorious Feeling," as playwright Jay Berkow shows us how two men, fighting over the same woman (and with one quite famous and the other not nearly so), somehow managed to overcome their complicated personal relationship and create a very nearly perfect popular entertainment--one that has now endured for sixty-one years (and counting).

And so, we have Gene Kelly (the handsome and assured tap dancer Richard Strimer, long a Chicago musical comedy star), Stanley Donen (Steven Spanopoulos, a great dancer too, and young as Donen was young), Jeanne Coyne (the leggy and assured Cara Salerno), Debbie Reynolds (the young and dance-mad Nicole Miller, fresh from Munster's "42nd Street") and Arthur Freed (the songwriter turned producer, played by veteran stage star Robert Hildreth) coming and going in and about a studio rehearsal room, where a pianist and a bass player (William Underwood and Jamie Martinez) are at their disposal for rehearsals, auditions and what-not. An even longer list of famous movie musical personalities lurks just off stage, as the names Louis B. Mayer, Oscar Levant, Betty Comden, Adolph Green, Donald O'Connor, Judy Garland, Cyd Charisse, Dore Schary, Betsy Blair, Cole Porter and more are invoked through dialogue.

Even though this show is a play and not a musical (to me anyway, in a strict dramaturgical sense) there ARE songs--nine of them are listed in the program. Most of them are by Arthur Freed, some of them are more danced than sung, and all of them are, on the surface anyway, performed by characters who know they are singing and dancing. Occasionally they sing about what's going on in their personal lives, but they probably don't realize it. And the dancing is great! Strimer's tapping is pretty spectacular, and it's neat to see it so exposed and closeup. The choreography here is by the well-known Broadway dancer and Michael Bennett protégé Danny Herman, and while I haven't checked to see how closely his work here resembles Kelly's actual choreography for "Singin' in the Rain," it seems pretty darn close to me. In fact, one of the highlights of this show is seeing Strimer, Spanapoulos and Miller doing a full-out run-through of "Good Mornin'," one of Hollywood's most iconic musical numbers, with straight-backed chairs standing in for the sofa. It's pretty spectacular. Really! And we see Kelly and Coyne working out choreography for the picture (dances that eventually went to Kelly and Charisse), and a version of the movie's legendary title song performed by Kelly, Coyne and Donen.

While having the instrumentalists oddly coming and going ("Take a break, Kenny") struck me as the same conceit that keeps some ragtag players hanging about the choir room on the TV series "Glee," it is (almost entirely) done with a sense of reality. And the fact that the enormous playing space in Munster, even with the upstage area walled off, is still larger than the audience seating area is justified by a line in a phone call about "we're in the rehearsal room--the big one." And most of the musical numbers take place in the first act, as the second act needs room for dialogue--the characters making up the love triangle realize that they can't keep going on like this, and that something's gotta give. This IS a play, folks. And a compelling one. Brief, yes--the entire running time, including intermission, is right at two hours. And it's not earth-shattering, but it's entertaining, engaging and real.

Playwright Berkow, the director of music theatre performance at Western Michigan University since 2004, has worked as a director and choreographer in New York and around the country. And yet, it didn't seem like this show was the work of a new playwright. I bought the phone calls and the reasons for coming and going from only one location. I felt like I came to know these five characters as real people, and not just as the legends I knew them to be before I arrived. And the ending of this show, which I will not divulge, is a true coup de theatre, a moment which, if presented in another medium (film, literature, music, television, etc.) doesn't quite work, but which works beautifully in live performance in a theater. Berkow, director William Pullinsi and choreographer Herman collaborated on this exciting and touching moment, I think. And beautifully.

Angie Weber Miller has designed an expansive rehearsal room/soundstage set that I really enjoyed being in, and the lighting of Charles Cooper and sound design of Barry G. Funderburg were low-key but successful. Brenda Winstead's costumes, Lauren Earnshaw's props and Kevin Barthel's wigs gave a fuller sense of the period, and allowed the performer and the legend to blend seamlessly together.

The audience last Friday night had a great time visiting a beloved movie, and getting a peek into the backstage shenanigans of show biz folk. It's not all fun and games, though. Kelly caught the flu, probably cheated on his wife, and undercut the credibility of the man who filmed him doing his best work. And yet, art alone endures, right? MGM's motto was "Art for art's sake," and watching that motto play out among some of the greats of the field is a rewarding, if not a life-changing, evening at a show.

If you love dance, love movies, love old Hollywood, love the creative process, and have seen personal relationships color performance in the workplace, I do recommend that you see "What a Glorious Feeling." Wait, doesn't that list potentially include everyone reading this review? Why yes! Yes, it does. This is a really nice show, and deserves to be produced across the country. And some of our best local performers are giving it a full-out professional shot at entering the repertory. It absolutely has my vote.

WHAT A GLORIOUS FEELING runs April 25 through June 2 at Theatre at the Center, the year-round professional theater located at The Center for Visual and Performing Arts, 1040 Ridge Road, in Munster, Indiana. Performances are Wednesdays through Sundays. Ticket prices are $38-$42. Call the box office at 219.836.3255 of visit

PHOTO: Richard Strimer and Nicole Miller

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