By Perry Tannenbaum
Few musicals are more spectacular on stage than Singin’ in the Rain, adapted by Betty Comden and Adolph Green from their celebrated screenplay. People remember the title tune and Gene Kelly’s carefree rain-drenched spin around a lamppost, but there are other notable songs in the score by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, including “You Stepped Out of a Dream,” “All I Do Is Dream of You,” “Make’Em Laugh,” and “Good Mornin’.” While there’s little that’s unpredictable in the storyline, Comden and Green add plenty of comedy to the abundant tapping and hoofing.
Central Piedmont Community College Summer Theatre had a marvelous hit with the show in 2001, but there are understandable reasons why it hasn’t been reprised in the Metrolina area for the past 15 years. To make a splash with Singin’ in the Rain, a company needs to find three triple threats to play the three leads and an accomplished comedienne to play squeaky-voiced villainess Lina Lamont. Above all, you have to make it rain at the end of Act I and restart with a dry stage after intermission, Herculean plumbing and drainage challenges. You have to applaud Davidson Community Players for tackling these difficulties at Duke Family Performance Hall, but in the proud history of this company, Singin’ in the Rain is destined to become legendary for its technical shortcomings.
Lina is the beauteous co-star of the dashing Don Lockwood in numerous silent screen romances, not at all shy about feeding the Hollywood gossip mill with rumors that she and Don are soon to be wed, reigning happily afterwards as king and queen of Tinseltown. Just two things wrong with Lina’s reveries: Don despises Lina and Warner Brothers is about to release The Jazz Singer. While “The Royal Rascal” is a box office hit for Lockwood and Lamont, movie producer R.F. Simpson realizes that footage already shot for “The Dueling Cavalier” is likely to be stillborn because talkies have triumphed so suddenly and decisively. Lina’s voice is so unromantic that Simpson already contrives to make sure she does not speak in public at Hollywood openings.
Don and his old vaudeville sidekick Cosmo Brown cook up a technical stratagem. They will overdub Lina’s toxic voice with a pleasant one. What’s more, Cosmo, a skilled composer, will help turn the whole shebang into a musical, “The Dancing Cavalier.” After the “Royal Rascal” premiere, Don has met and fallen madly in love with aspiring actress Kathy Selden, a triple threat who can supply all the dubbing and body doubling the studio needs. All they have to do is keep the wildly jealous Lina from finding out before the movie is released.
Though they aren’t exactly youngsters, Dan Brunson and Matt Merrell make an admirable vaudeville team as Don and Cosmo. Brunson’s fortes are singing and acting, so Don’s songs and his romancing and his comedy all come off well, but he’s only passable as a dancer. It’s almost fortunate that so much went awry on opening night to draw my attention away from Brunson’s mediocre dancing. While Brunson was unquestionably wet by the end of his grand “Singin’ in the Rain” solo, there had been no detectable waterworks or rain. The iconic lamppost was so unstable that I was actually relieved that he didn’t attempt to take a spin on it. Brunson actually took a spill during his epic solo – or did he? He was so professional covering up, executing a couple of comical swimming strokes while he was splayed out on the floor.
Disaster seemed even more imminent in the preceding “Good Mornin'” trio with Cosmo and Kathy. Choreographer Kathy Mullis has them doing a complex routine with a pair of adjoining stairs in the background and a sofa, which the trio is supposed to flop over and/or topple at the end. None of these pieces of furniture was securely braked after they had been rolled onstage. It was something of a victory when Brunson, Merrell, and Emily Klingman, playing Kathy, didn’t break a limb during this hazardous scene. The comedy of technical errors actually beset Brunson earlier, when the tear in Lockwood’s tear-away tux sleeve became prematurely visible during “You Stepped out of a Dream.”
Merrell has performed almost exclusively in DCP comedies over the years, so it was surprising to find how adept – and athletic – he is as a dancer. His slapstick athleticism on his solo showcase, “Make ‘Em Laugh,” drew roars from the audience, and his tap duo with Brunson on the “Moses Supposes” novelty was also a sensation, though both men appeared winded (and out of sync) as their routine was ending. As the comical sidekick, Merrell could afford to show this weariness without really breaking character. Less experienced than the leading men, Della Knowles as Lina could have used more feedback from director Sylvia Schnople while Emily Klingman as Kathy could have benefited from more encouragement. Knowles altered her voice so radically as Lina that she was mostly unintelligible until deep into Act II, but Klingman’s low-energy performance was perhaps more puzzling. She never seemed to grasp the elemental idea that Kathy was worthier of stardom than Lina.
Technical difficulties that plagued the opening performance certainly disfigured some of the choreography that Mullis brought to this production, but the merits of her work are inescapable, especially in the big ensembles – which have become a tapping DCP trademark. Costumes by John David Brown III, Andy Lominac, and David Townsend surround Brunson and Merrell with a rainbow of color in their final “Broadway Melody” duet, and with Anne Lambert as gossip empress Dora Bailey and Jim Esposito as studio chieftain Simpson, non-singing support is unexpectedly strong.
Ultimately, the sloppiness of this opening night effort nearly sank it. Most of that sloppiness is fixable if tech director Tim Beany, stage manager Lydia Taylor, and the stage crew will start sweating the small details – and Schnople demands more excellence. Knowles struggled to put on her peignoir because it wasn’t laid out properly on her divan, drawing unintended hoots from the audience that could have been prevented. Clips of silent films projected over the stage were clearly videos converted into black and white. Software exists that will distress and vignette video to look like film, but even that wouldn’t help the moribund silent film acting. It must be grand opera, not bland soap opera!