All I’ve ever wanted is to have Debbie Reynolds jump out of my cake.
And though I’d never turn down the later versions — say, the crazy Debbie who did such a number on Carrie Fisher — my dream is the Singin’ in the Rain Debbie. Debbie done up in that fetching pink bathing suit and yarmulke, lip-synching “All I Do Is Dream of You” and nailing the Charleston. Debbie hoofing so hard to keep up with the man she still calls Mr. Kelly that nobody would have noticed if she’d just spat out the diet pills MGM was forcing down her gullet. The Debbie who makes Singin’ in the Rain the movie I love above all others.
Sure, Gene Kelly brilliantly choreographed, conceived, and co-directed it. And Donald O’Connor’s “Make ’em Laugh” is the link between the song-and-dance set pieces of last century’s movies and the ritualized violence of today’s. And yes, the title number is the happiest moment in all film: Kelly’s simple steps, his on-and-off-the-curb glide and his graceless splashing all summon exactly that goofy joy of new love.
But it’s Debbie who wins me. Has anyone onscreen ever looked more thrilled to be there? She’s the spirited amateur given a chance, and it’s difficult not to identify with her, to wonder, as she keeps pace with these preternaturally talented tap men, if maybe you could have, too.
So, weary as I am of summer musicals, I was thrilled to learn that we’d be treated to two Singin’ in the Rains in a single month: a week ago at Shawnee Mission’s Theatre in the Park, and then at Starlight, where the touring company is set up through this weekend. In the spirit of Debbie’s hardworking triumph, I couldn’t help but think of it as a competition: the average Joes versus the out-of-town pros. Would youthful heart or slick experience prevail? If an underdog like Debbie could do it, why not these kids?
This kind of thinking doesn’t work out for the Royals, either.
Shawnee Mission Park has staged fine productions before, nonprofessional shows that required no lowering of expectations. But its Singin’ was an exercise in awkward pauses and dancers trying to keep their hats on. The first line was flubbed; the second followed stiffly an epoch afterward. The numbers picked up the pace — best was Mike McNulty and Aaron Shinn in a vaudeville flashback — and Steven Hopkins pounded the hell out of himself for “Make ’em Laugh.” But only Theatre in the Park mainstay Cara Fish (in the Debbie role) seemed as comfortable talking as she did dancing. Just like the real Debbie, she should have had more to do.
The real problem was the direction. Too often a mob of extras milled about onstage, and the silence as each actor emerged to deliver his or her line was grueling. This should be a comedy, crackling with life; instead, I felt about the way I do when I’m caught behind octogenarians in line at the salad bar: Please, can we move it along?
It moves at Starlight, fortunately, muscled along by the superb song and dance of Jeffry Denman, an Astaire man laying claim to Kelly territory with grace, aplomb and a voice that hits hard even in this theater the size of a parking lot. It’s as fine a performance as you’ll see this summer, and his tap is a joy. Meredith Patterson is another strong, stranded love interest, and Michael Arnold mines oddball laughs from the second-banana role. Stripped of its pretensions, “Broadway Melody” is a highlight instead of the disaster it is on film. Barring some sound problems, the show sings right along — charming, funny, insubstantial and absolutely professional.
Amateurs fare better when they’re not taking on Hollywood’s greatest musical. In fact, it’s impossible to say The Why — a sweaty Minds Eye production that pits actors against air conditioners in KCK — is anything but the single best school-shooting tragicomedy written by an 18-year-old that I’ve ever seen. Playwright Victor Kaufold’s thinking is hip and cynical: The cable news in his world uses John Carpenter’s Halloween theme as its bumper, and his murderer protagonist asks if any of the lives lost would truly have amounted to anything. But there’s an engaging freshness to the outrage, and I was left wondering — as always when confronted by teenage art — whether what seems like naiveté is actually clarity. Kids still expect enough from the world to be disappointed in it.
Jonathan Clayton scores big in a variety of roles, most notably as Kaufold’s parody of an itchy grown-up playwright tackling this same dark material. The others do better at monologues than in conversation, and the scenes between the murderer (Bryan LaFave) and his therapist (Christen Thimesch) turn too mopey. But it’s a daring show, asking — but not answering — a simple question: Why does this happen?
Since seeing it, I’ve been asking my own: Why don’t more misunderstood kids turn out for this? Why is the only dangerous play in town this week out of town? And, this being summer: Why did Donald O’Connor get squandered in all those talking-mule movies?