March 13, 2020
‘Singin’ in the Rain’ makes a big splash
By John Busbee for The Culture Buzz
(This review was written before the Des Moines Community Playhouse’s conscientious decision to shutter this show due to the current pandemic. If you have tickets for a pending performance, please consider gifting that ticket price to the Playhouse. Many hope this magnificent production will be revived in the near future.)
The timing of this show is perfect. After a long winter, everyone yearns for springtime showers to usher in the blossoming of the new season. Annual season, not theatrical. The Des Moines Community Playhouse 101st season started last fall, and entering this spring gives us a masterfully conceived and delivered gift with their big spring musical, Singin’ in the Rain. This talent-laden show vibrates with a special energy and washes over the audience like a refreshing springtime shower. If only we could hoof it like this gifted cast, we would waltz out of the theater blissfully traipsing down every rain-soaked avenue we could find while humming this shows memorable tunes.
The Playhouse pulls from the golden age of movie musicals with Singin’ in the Rain, a 1952 film that fans easily rank high in their Top Ten list. In 1983, in London’s West End theatre district, producers attempted a stage adaptation, including the iconic rain scene. The Playhouse first produced this musical during their 1995-96 season, and Iowans have been eagerly awaiting its return. Those who waited will be rewarded with one of the best musicals by the Playhouse in modern times.
This production is being guided by talented director and choreographer, Erin Horst who, by her own admission, “…grew up watching these iconic Golden Age movies.” Her passion for this story, coupled with her uber-skills in directing and choreography, make this production positively glow. Attracting an A-list of regional talent, many with professional level performance abilities, makes Singin’ in the Rain a soul-filling and rewarding experience.
The film version sprinkled many touchstones onto America’s musical fans, and Horst keeps those moments vibrantly true to the original cinematic magic while giving her production its own flair. The show opens with a glittering splash, a red-carpet Hollywoodland premiere which delivers exposition and character relationships, and serves as an eye-candy showcase for some exquisite costuming by gifted designer, Angela Lampe. This wonderful montage, anchored by gossip celebrity Dora Bailey (given effusive appeal by local stage favorite, Preshia Paulding), includes a youthful duo of Lockwood & Brown (Jack Gabby and Miles Burrell, respectively) doing some mighty fine footwork in their vaudeville flashback number.
Horst filled her cast with gifted performers who capture the inner soul of their beloved cinematic counterparts yet own infusing their roles with their own flair. As life-long friends Don Lockwood and Cosmo Brown, Charlie Reese and Jim Kolnik capture that years-spanning bond friendship, bantering and performing together instinctively. Reese gives us a confident Lockwood who becomes smitten through the chance encounter with LA newbie, Kathy Seldon (a gifted Stephanie Schneider) Seldon’s beautiful voice is matched by grace in dancing, chops in acting and wears her role with ease and familiarity. Kolnik’s elasticity in movement and facial dexterity make him a pure delight to watch, and a perfect second banana. Reese is completely invested in his Lockwood, from his sharp work tapdancing and crisp, to well-defined layering to his role, and belting out songs with rarified range. As the fly in the relationships-ointment, Maggie Schmitt embodies the saccharin-surfaced conniver, Lina Lamont. Her beauteous physicality is countered by her grating voice – definitely not the asset a silent movie star needs when transitioning to the new era of “talkies.” Big pay-off numbers include “Make ‘Em Laugh,” where Kolnik’s super-performance doesn’t have the cut-and-next-take rest periods the movie scene had; “Good Morning,” the spirited trio of Reese, Schneider and Kolnik capturing all the exuberance from that number, including the tilt-the-couch signature ending; “Singin’ in the Rain,” splashingly delivered with a buoyant joy by Reese who leaves a glow in the souls of every audience member from that Act One curtain closer.
While the leads anchor this show’s story, Singin’ in the Rain would be a diluted experience without the incredible work from the rest of the cast. This mixed band of great dancers, superb character actors and dedicated multi-character performers act, sing and dance this show to stellar heights. Creating the feel of a “cast of thousands,” these tireless ensemble players proved the be the enhancers for this show. Add the scene shift work, often flowing with seamless movement from scene to scene, keep the action zipping along. Teena Sauvola’s scenic design provided good visual art deco framing, allowing plenty of room for stage movement plus the upstage “moving picture screen,” a marvelous tech addition. There were a few missed cues on potting up the mics for players, but such errors were rare. The blissful immersion into this musical theatre masterpiece will last a long, long time.
Singin’ in the Rain marks a major gem in the crown of successes by the Playhouse. It is a show that must be experienced, as those who do see it will be talking about this well into the future.
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