Taking on the unenviable task of dancing into a musical role made famous by the peerless Gene Kelly, Rhett Guter acquits himself favorably in Olney Theatre’s exuberant new production of Singin’ in the Rain (★★★☆☆). Guter has experience stepping into Kelly’s tap shoes, having led a stellar ensemble in Olney’s aces On the Town last year. And he lends a breezy confidence and aw-shucks appeal to his leading man role here, although his take on silent movie star Don Lockwood lacks somewhat for sheer dazzle and showmanship.
The show itself, not at all short on showmanship, could stand to spruce up the razzle-dazzle of its portrayal of Roaring Twenties Hollywood. Director Marcos Santana, a Helen Hayes Award-winner for Olney’s In the Heights, presents the Singin’ stage company as actors and a crew filming a production of Singin’ in the Rain. Setting most of the action and “film sets” inside scenic designer Dan Conway’s voluminous studio soundstage adds a layer of behind-the-scenes buzz, but doesn’t advance the plot. The realistic, but drab, soundstage backdrop robs the visuals of some glamour, while the space’s expansive dimensions swallow up the sound of music director Angie Benson’s 10-piece orchestra.
There are hardly any cinema artists more unsung than the musicians of MGM’s orchestra during the studio’s movie musical heyday. They played brilliantly on some of the most memorable recordings of the last hundred years. It’s easy to forget while watching the 1952 film’s Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor or Cyd Charisse defying gravity onscreen, just how great the music sounds. All that is to say that this production’s live music sounds a bit thin, providing at times only wan accompaniment to Grady McLeod Bowman’s rousing choreography and the performers’ bustling energy.
The dancing in the rain definitely is a greater attraction than the singing. Guter’s costars, Jacob Scott Tischler in the Donald O’Connor role of Lockwood’s faithful sidekick Cosmo, and Amanda Castro as ingenue Kathy Selden, the role that made Debbie Reynolds a star, are especially pleasing to watch tapping, spinning, and leaping across stage. Tischler captures the outlandishly acrobatic joie de vivre of “Make ‘Em Laugh” without hurting himself, and, alongside Guter, more than rises to the occasion of the double-time dance duet “Moses Supposes.” That he punctuates the performance with so many well-timed comic asides is the cherry on top of his fabulous Cosmo Brown.
Castro, a former principal dancer with Urban Bush Women, puts down a wonderful “Good Mornin’,” and dances a sweetly romantic “You Were Meant for Me” with Guter inside that empty soundstage. The pair create credible rapport as sparring strangers-turned-lovebirds. Although, according to the story, we should also believe Guter’s Don Lockwood as one-half of silent cinema’s biggest box office pairing, Lockwood & Lamont, with platinum-blonde diva Lina Lamont. Guter doesn’t really sell that pairing, or the notion of this guy being a Hollywood star so famous and full of himself that he might crave his own comeuppance. We’re meant to be catching Don as he’s realizing his disenchantment with the emptiness of fame, but Guter doesn’t establish that Don ever relished stardom.
As Lamont, “a shimmering, glowing star in the cinema firmament,” Farrell Parker absolutely sells the role of the jealous, helium-voiced silent film star. Lina, the story’s villain and main obstacle to Cosmo, Kathy, and Don’s plan to turn the latest Lockwood & Lamont picture from a potential silent flop into a musical hit, is and has always been Singin’ in the Rain‘s secret weapon.
Jean Hagen, the only member of the original film cast to be Oscar-nominated for their performance, played the part to such perfection that Parker, greatly abetted by Rosemary Pardee’s costumes, more or less just serves up Lina-via-Hagen, and it works like gangbusters. The lion’s share of the script’s most pointed comedy runs through Lina’s dense or diabolical mind, raucous slapstick, and her singularly non-sonorous screech, all ably embodied here by Parker, with a voice that sounds just right.
Singin’ in the Rain runs through Jan. 5, 2020, at the Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road in Olney, Md. Tickets are $42 to $94. Call 301-924-3400, or visit www.olneytheatre.org.