By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out“)
When MGM was giving itself a hearty pat on the back back in 1974 with the release of their tribute movie “That’s Entertainment,” the 1952 film “Singin’ in the Rain” was given the nod as the greatest film musical in its catalog. That may have been self-serving, since the Arthur Freed and Gene Kelly movie depicted the early history of the movie business and its transition from silent to sound pictures.
But it would be hard to find another movie musical with as many good songs and great dance numbers. Betty Comden and Adolph Green provided the screenplay on which the stage musical is based and the songs were composed by Nacio Herb Brown and Freed, who co-directed with Kelly, so the film’s status as the best to come out of the fabled studio was probably pretty accurate and not mere bloviation.
With veteran director and lover of classic movie musicals Ricky Graham in charge, Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts’ latest production of the stage version of Singin’ in the Rain does a credible job of translating the superb performances rendered on the big screen by Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and then 19-year-old Debbie Reynolds and bringing them to a live venue.
As screen heartthrob and leading man Don Lockwood, Derek Luscutoff is a terrific actor and singer. He handles the role with confidence and is the lynchpin for this work. Were he to be too stiff or to lack any of the warmth we detect from his character’s feelings for the young Kathy Selden (Anna Laura Birbiglia) or his abiding friendship with Cosmo Brown (Parker Lowrie), the work would not resonate with the audience as much. But fear not, Luscutoff executes his role with absolute perfection.
The role of newcomer Kathy Selden is also adroitly handled by Birbiglia, who has come up through the ranks at Rivertown working in the ensemble of several company shows and choreographing several major and young people’s shows there. She also works at co-artistic director Kelly Fouchi’s Encore Dance Studio as a dance instructor and currently is a theatre teacher for talented students at a local school.
There is chemistry between her and Luscutoff, which also helps to advance the plot. So, too, is the friendship expressed by Lowrie as sidekick and musician Cosmo Brown to Lockwood. In addition to keeping up with Luscutoff in the superb tap sequence of “Moses Supposes,” where they dance on top of nearly every conceivable surface, and with both Birgiglia and Luscutoff in the fantastic dance number “Good Morning,” Lowrie is a true comic fop is “Make ‘Em Laugh,” a comical ripoff of Cole Porter’s “Be a Clown.”
As silent screen star Lina Lamont, Emily Bagwill has the opportunity to frequently steal the show and she does quite often. It is an absolute joy to see this talented performer employ her comedic skills in carrying off the role of the out-of-control movie star who not only lacks talent, but has a shrill voice to match. The only problem with casting Bagwill in the role is that she never gets to show off any of her fantastic choreographic and dancing skills displayed in other productions. The audience will never know how truly talented and capable she is, but her depiction of Lamont is every bit as good as that of Jean Hagen, who was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Featured Actress in the film.
Katelin Zelon, who is based in New Orleans and frequently works in New York and elsewhere around the country, worked as choreographer on this production and the several big ensemble dancing and singing numbers benefit directly from her work. Ensemble member Sasha Munchak is credited as dance captain for the production as well.
Mason Wood’s cleverly rendered movie scenes shown throughout the show are essential storyboards that tell the story of how sound was first considered a curiosity in the motion picture industry before it became a necessary ingredient in a film. Even the director gets a chance to ply his comic trade as a professor hawking recordings for the film industry and is delightful in that role.
Kyle Daigrepont as a diction coach in “Moses Supposes” is almost unrecognizable, but he does a great job becoming the comical fodder of Luscutoff and Lowrie in that scene. As studio head R. F. Simpson, Daniel Rubio also has a chance to hold his own with the musical’s other stars and does a creditable job, too.
Production and sound design effects were rendered by Marc Fouchi, who also added the title of producer to his credit on this show. Sound design was handled by Kage Laney, while Benjamin Dougherty was in charge of all the technical direction on the show. John Keenan did an excellent job with the scenic design with Robert Fletcher on original costume designs and Daniel Ragamer coordinating the rented costumes.
The big letdown with Singin’ in the Rain was in Act One’s closing number, the classic scene where Don Lockwood is literally singing in the rain, expressing his love for Kathy Selden and considering all of life’s possibilities. The show is designed to have the character of Don Lockwood splash his way across the stage as the act ends.
Instead of real rain showers depicted, the director and producers elected to utilize projections of the rain against the stage instead. It probably saved the production company in several ways including the delivery system of the rain and cleanup during intermission as well as protecting costumes from being doused, but it deprived the audience of the absolute joy being expressed on stage by the leading actor and dancer.
Those who are familiar with the film recall just how impressive that dance sequence with Gene Kelly was and how it has ingrained itself into the consciousness of cinematic history. Even with great talent on the stage, to see it rendered in such a flat and banal manner with pretend rain seemed out of character for a company that frequently applauds itself for its technical achievements.
Singin’ in the Rain (2 hours and 30 minutes with a 15-minute intermission) finishes its run at the main stage of the Rivertown Theaters for the Performing Arts with shows tonight at 7:30 (overflow tickets only) and two shows tomorrow at 2:00 and 6:30 p.m. (most tickets available) at 325 Minor Street in Kenner, LA. To purchase tickets, click here or call 504-461-9475.