Q&A: What a glorious feeling: ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ splashes into Olney Theatre

December 12, 2019

December 11, 2019 | (Jason Fraley)

The 1952 film by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly is the greatest movie musical ever made.

This month, “Singin’ in the Rain” dances into Olney Theatre Center through Jan. 5.

“It’s a love letter to musical theater, to the Golden Age [of Hollywood],” lead actor Rhett Guter told WTOP. “People walk out of there singing, laughing and crying happy tears.”

“It’s one of those pieces where I can simply say the message is joy,” co-star Jacob Scott Tischler said. “No matter what is befalling you that day, you will sit down in those seats, and we will do our damn-dest (sic) to make sure that you leave with a smile on your face.”

Based on the screenplay by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, the story follows Don Lockwood, one half of Hollywood’s silent power couple Lockwood and Lamont. But when talking pictures threaten to put silent stars out of business, Don transforms his next film into a musical with the help of sidekick Cosmo Brown. There’s just one problem: co-star Lina’s voice is like nails on a chalkboard. What if they dub her over with a rising talent?

“Don is a big star in the silent movie business, then the talkies come along and his entire career is compromised,” Tischler said. “But he falls in love with Kathy Seldon and then he’s got his trusty sidekick, myself, to back him up. And his faux fiancee tries to tear that all down for her gain, not for Don’s gain, which is not what a fiancee should be doing.”

The theme of adapting to changing technology is something everyone can relate to.

“Along comes this new technology that threatens what he has built his career on,” Guter said. “That’s something we can all relate to. It’s very contemporary, especially now. Every couple of years it seems like a new technology comes along that challenges, shakes up, or makes something obsolete, things that people have been working on their entire lives. Learning how to change, adapt and roll with it is a big part of it.”

In addition to his movie career, there’s also the internal growth that Don experiences.

“He sort of got what he asked for [professionally] and is feeling a little empty inside,” Guter said. “Then he stumbles across Kathy Seldon who presses some buttons and says, ‘You’re not really an actor. That’s just pantomime on screen.’ He makes a good show that it doesn’t bother him, but it really does. Later when he runs into her again, there’s this Benedict & Beatrice relationship where he attempts to apologize.”

Rounding out the love triangle are Amanda Castro as Kathy and Farrell Parker as Lina.

“Amanda Castro is hands down the best tap dancer and one of the nicest people I’ve ever met,” Tischler said. “She comes out of the New York scene where she’s been doing the professional tap circuit for basically as long as she’s been alive. … She was playing Anita in multiple opera houses around the country. [This] is her first role out of ‘West Side Story’ and she is tearing it up. She’s really wonderful to work with and fantastic on stage.”

“Our Lina is Farrell Parker, who is a local D.C. actor and has received rave reviews on her comedic ability and her ability to honor the original voice and intent of Lina Lamont while still making it her own,” Guter said. “She is a blast to work with.”

Guter plays the Lina relationship as driven by celebrity status more than actual feeling.

“It’s pretty strongly in the script that it’s a fabricated relationship for the media, for the publicity, and he plays along with it,” Guter said. “I don’t think he necessarily dislikes her, but the further it goes into the story and the more pressure there is for that relationship to be real, he finds himself at odds with what the media and his bosses are asking him to do and what he personally wants in his life, which is to pursue a real relationship.”

“For our younger listeners, think Kanye and Kim,” Tischler joked.

As you might guess by such quips, Tischler brings the comic relief as Cosmo.

“Jacob absolutely has the physical comedy — and then some,” Guter said. “We have a lot of fun on stage because it’s always a little different. … There is so much physical comedy, which always lends itself to things going a little bit differently. I love watching Jacob pick up the ball wherever it happens to land and proverbially run with it.”

The role was of course originated by Donald O’Connor, who has long been Tichler’s idol.

“I remember seeing Don O’Connor and being like: that’s my guy,” Tischler said. “His physical vocabulary is unmatched in cinema, except for maybe Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. … He only filmed ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ once before he had to go to the hospital. I brag because I need to do it every single night. Rhett literally drags me off stage.”

“That started as a joke in rehearsal, but the director was like, ‘We’re keeping that,'” Guter said. “Seeing those dances live in front of you is the big difference. You can watch the movie at any time and it is brilliant, but seeing it done live, seeing the theatricality, craftsmanship, technique, showmanship, a full ensemble of dancers and hearing those taps live with a live orchestra, it’s the magic of theater. … Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor did it in a studio; we’re doing all the numbers in a two-and-a-half-hour span.”

While Tischler gets the pratfalls, Guter does the heavy lifting as the lead.

“He’s a much better dancer than I am,” Tischler said. “He carries the show and it is one monster of a show for this guy. He has one dance number after another, then throw some singing on top of that, and it’s one of the most athletic performances I’ve ever seen. He does it like a champ.”

It’s a dream come true for Guter, who will never forget seeing Gene Kelly’s masterpiece.

“I actually walked in on the middle of it,” Guter said. “I was running an errand in high school and went to another class where they were showing the film. I walked in on the ‘You Were Meant for Me’ pas de deux and I remember it very well. Gene Kelly became my idol and a big part of why I started dancing and taking ballet and tap. He is the man. He is absolutely the man. I love what he did for dance, for dance on film and for men in dance.”

Under music direction by Angie Benson, the show features iconic songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, including “Good Mornin’,” “Make ‘Em Laugh,” “You Were Meant For Me,” “Moses Supposes,” “You Are My Lucky Star” and the splashy title number.

“A lot of these came from the American songbook that was available at the time,” Tischler said. “‘Moses Supposes’ some people disagree that the song was written at all because the actual breadth of the song is so short [before the dancing starts]. It’s about a three-minute tap dance. Both Rhett and I are utterly exhausted by the end of it every time.”

How is the big title number visually designed? Are there puddles on stage?

“There is rain on stage,” Guter said. “We have a curtain of rain downstage. It gets very wet, I get very wet, the audience may get a little wet, the first couple rows anyway. It is one of the greatest joys to get to do that number and actually splash around on stage and kick the water out at the audience. I love it every time.”

“We have rain elements, projection elements and gigantic set pieces that fit together like a puzzle,” Tischler said. “It’s definitely a visual spectacle. You’ll see a really great concept by our director Marcos Santana, who chose to pay homage to the movie but not try to recreate it frame for frame. You’ll see fantastic choreography by Grady McLeod Bowman, who also pays homage to Gene Kelly but really rips it up in his own fantastic way. All the design aspects blend very well into this unique pastel display.”

“All the costumes are 1930s and beautifully done,” Guter said. “One of the biggest challenges of the show is the location changes. It changes locations many, many times very fast, and not just that, I think I wear 15 costumes in the show. … It’s a lot of pieces, so honing it all to come in musically and be tight and not slam into each other and make sure everything is zipped and buttoned is quite an undertaking.”

They agree it’s the most technical production that Olney Theatre has done in a while.

“I really respect and admire what the Olney does and their artistic integrity,” Guter said. “I just sat in on their process of selecting the new season. Hearing the artistic director, artistic staff and other actors discuss what work should be brought to the community, considering different races, ethnicities and preferences and saying, ‘What is our responsibility in this community as producers of theater?’ It was very inspiring and made me very proud to be part of their season now for the last three years.”

December 11, 2019 | (Jason Fraley)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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