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Theater Review: Singin’ in the Rain

In 1985, the musical adaptation of “Singin in the Rain” appeared on Broadway and was famously plagued with daunting technical problems. A particularly scary moment occurred during one performance: following the legendary title number, in which stage was drenched in water, the curtain closed and the set was mopped. However, the stagehand missed a few spots. During act two, the actress playing Kathy Seldon was singing and dancing, had the misfortune of being near an un-mopped spot on  stage, slipped and fell. Hard.  The sound of her smacking against the stage was followed by a shared gasp of horror from the audience. Yet, being a professional stage performer, the actress quickly got to her feet and kept dancing. During the curtain call, the actress received a standing ovation and, when she took a bow, a massive bruise on her leg was visible. My parents were in the audience that night and have excitedly recalled this incident many times throughout my life. If anything, it always made me think that “Singin’ in the Rain” was too big, too daunting for the stage. After all, wouldn’t a film musical about the magic of movies be an odd choice for theater?

To the enormous credit of directing team Alexis and Steven Dascoulias, whose final blockbuster at The Historic Iao Theater this is, they’ve taken the greatest movie musical of all time and made it seem a perfect fit for theater. The 1952 Stanley Donen/Gene Kelly-directed movie masterpiece is replicated at times, to a staggering degree of fidelity. Yes, it does rain on the stage at one point. Yes, the two leads do tap dance together on a tiny desk. At times, the MGM musical comes to life in front of us but it’s the manner in which it becomes a theater piece (and , let it be noted, a musical about the theater experience) that matters most.

Chris Kepler steps into the Gene Kelly role as Don Lockwood, a smug, Douglas Fairbanks-like action movie star during the Silent era whose fame is on the rise. While Lockwood’s frequent co-star Lina Lamont (played by Laura Cole) is an insufferable, minor talent, his best friend and former Vaudeville partner Cosmo (played by John Galvin) provides assurance that Lockwood’s gifts are put to good use. Enter Kathy Seldon (played by Lia De Souza) a struggling actress who is not moved by Lockwood’s boyish charm and shakes his confidence by questioning his film roles. Adding to Lockwood’s mounting insecurity: the creation of “talkie” pictures, as the once-innovative “The Jazz Singer” causes professional hams like Lockwood and Lamont to reconsider how they act and sound in front of a camera.

To put it simply, the Dascoulias’ “Singin in the Rain” is dazzling and full of theatrical magic. This is an all-stops-out production, the result of every collaborator performing at the top of their abilities. The level of difficulty to pull this off, both for the on-stage performers and those backstage, is enormous.

Kepler is up to the considerable demands of the role, finding the right notes of humor and self deprecation in his take on an egotistical movie star. His abilities as a dancer and singer are so advanced, his performance is flush with moments that make the jaw drop. Galvin is an ideal Cosmo and shines brightly during the big “Broadway Melody” number.  De Souza is excellent, more than up to the acting demands of her role. As a singer and dancer, De Souza is a total knockout, captivating from the moment she bursts out of that giant cake.

Cole is dynamite as Lamont- it’s worth noting that she’s an exceptional performer and has the somewhat thankless job of playing a hack movie star with a screeching voice. “What’s Wrong With Me,” one of the new numbers created for the stage version, gives Cole a proper showcase, though she’s consistent at making Lamont’s loathsome ways fascinating to watch. There’s nice bit roles from Dale Button, Marsi Smith, Barron Burton (tremendous in the  “Beautiful Girls” number) and Jim Oxborrow. Paul Janes-Brown is very funny in his filmed cameo as an actor who demonstrates how “talkies” work. When the dancing starts, all of the performers tear up the stage. There will likely be scuff marks to buffer out once this one wraps.

It’s one thing to make it rain on the Historic Iao stage, it’s another thing entirely to recreate the feel of one of cinema’s greatest scenes. A tear dropped from my eye watching Kepler dance all over that set and splash through a puddle with boyish zeal. Likewise, I was astonished throughout “All I Do is Dream of You,” “Moses,” “Good Morning” and De Souza’s killer take on “Would You.” The biggest quality this production has with the movie that inspired it is that it just keeps getting better and better.

This production has amusing, stunningly realized replications of silent movies, inventively staged bits of filmmaking and a love for the Golden Era of Hollywood. However, whereas the ’52 movie was about the possibilities of cinema, this stage version, with its carefully choreographed wonders and a  genuinely stirring love story, is about the experience of being an audience member. We see Cosmo and Don as kids (winningly played by Kiele Kepler and Kanoa Goring) on the Vaudeville circuit, are faux audience members at movie premieres and are told at one point, “Stop that Woman!” (not to be taken seriously- all part of the show, folks). “Singin in the Rain” is about the you-had-to-be-there, once-in-a-lifetime magic of seeing a stage performance so staggering, you leave the theater feeling like you just fell in love. How fitting, that Alexis and Steven Dascoulias, are leaving us with a tribute to the sheer, transformative joy and limitless possibilities of theater. They are truly a treasure to Maui’s theater community. Their “Singin in the Rain” is an event, as funny and thrilling as you’d hope, and a true milestone for the Historic Iao Theater.

Singin in the Rain plays until August 5th at The Historic Iao Theater. Tickets are available at 808-242-6969 or at mauionstage.com.

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