"What a Glorious Feeling" is indeed what you will get from the new production at Oregon Cabaret Theatre.
Jay Berkow's homage to "Singin' in the Rain," directed and choreographed for the cabaret by the immensely talented Christopher George Patterson, is a delightful mix of storytelling, singing and dancing that will have you humming the tunes — and maybe even dancing a bit — as you leave the theater.
"Singin' in the Rain," MGM's legendary 1952 musical — often called the greatest of the movie musicals — was co-directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen and starred Kelly, Donald O'Connor and the very young Debbie Reynolds. The film's script was done by the Broadway writing team of Adolf Comden and Betty Green and its music was a pastiche of hits previously written through the '20s and '30s by producer Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown.
For "What a Glorious Feeling," writer Berkow had the splendid idea of doing a play based on the real story behind the production. He had a lot to work with. Berkow has deftly woven actual musical numbers from the film into the logistical problems of the making of the film (budget constraints forbid location shooting and a water shortage curtailed the shooting of the rain scene). Not to mention the tensions of the actual love triangle between Kelly, Donen and Jeanne Coyne, Kelly's longtime assistant dance director.
The driving force behind "Singin' in the Rain" was Gene Kelly. Kelly, with his exuberant, athletic dance style, was the "everyman" opposite of the elegant, polished Fred Astaire. He was tirelessly creative and exacting — with himself as well as others. Coming off his groundbreaking work "An American in Paris," Kelly was determined to take a pedestrian story and make another masterpiece.
Kelly had discovered Donen when the younger man was a chorus boy in Broadway's "Pal Joey." Donen subsequently worked as Kelly's assistant choreographer and assistant director in Hollywood. By the time "Singin' in the Rain" was made, Donen had directed two movie musicals on his own (one of them was "Royal Wedding," where Fred Astaire danced on the ceiling). But Kelly still viewed Donen as his protégé rather than an equal.
As "What a Glorious Feeling" opens, we learn that Donen and Coyne recently have been divorced and Kelly has hired both of them to help him with "Singin' in the Rain." Donen still loves Coyne, even though it was his infidelity that wrecked the marriage. He accuses her of marrying him only because she couldn't have Kelly. Kelly is condescending to both of them — he is the star, after all. But as Kelly's marriage collapses, he becomes more and more attracted to Coyne. (Kelly and Coyne eventually married. They had two children and were married until Coyne's death from cancer at age 50 in 1973.)
Berkow uses spectacular dance numbers set against music from the film to drive his plot. It is Patterson's meticulous choreography and graceful direction that takes this OCT production to another level. Patterson has assembled a marvelous cast here, with each actor's dramatic, singing and, especially, dancing talents sharply delineating their characters.
Netanel Bellaishe is a real find for the Kelly role. Artistic Director Jim Giancarlo told me that three weeks before rehearsals, he still had not cast Kelly. Then he got an email with a video from a man who had won the Israeli version of "So You Think You Can Dance" and had just finished touring the U.S. in "A Chorus Line." Bellaishe claims Kelly as his inspiration and it certainly shows.
Stanley Donen is played by Michael Danovich, who is making his West Coast debut. Young, eager and a smooth dancer, he is a perfect counterpoint to Bellaishe's edgy Kelly.
Katie Worley plays Jeanne Coyne. (She even looks like the real Coyne.) A graduate of the Pacific Conservatory of Performing Arts, she has performed extensively in the Bay Area. This is also her first appearance at OCT.
The ingénue here, the Debbie Reynolds role, is played by Shaeny Johnson.
Johnson perfectly captures the wide-eyed innocence mixed with gritty determination that Reynolds displayed prepping for the movie. Johnson is a graduate of Ashland High School who moved on to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
Rounding out the cast as the harried (non-dancing) producer Arthur Freed is OCT regular John Leistner. Music direction is by Chad Dickerson. The climax to all this storytelling, singing and incredible dancing is a re-creation of the iconic dance routine from "Singin' in the Rain," where Kelly twirls an umbrella, uses puddles for emphasis and gets soaking wet as he joyfully belts out the title song. Bellaishe absolutely channels Gene Kelly. His moves, his grace, the tilt of his hat and, astonishingly, even his facial features, become Kelly. It's breathtaking.
It makes you want to come back and see the whole thing again.
"What a Glorious Feeling" is at OCT through Nov. 6. As usual, dinner and brunch are available before the performance and desserts at intermission. For more information, call 541-488-2902 or visit www.oregoncabaret.com.
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at email@example.com.