Sept. 4, 1994
With Cheerful "Singin' in the Rain"
"Good Mornin', good mornin', we've talked the whole night through. Good mornin', good mornin' to you." So notes a jaunty tune that strikes an upbeat tone for Singin' in the Rain opening the fall stage season Wednesday with a splash. Paper Mill Playhouse bows in Millburn with its usual elan.
Presumably folks will be humming "good mornin'" noon and night during the seven-week run to Oct. 23. There are eight shows a week in the 1,200-seat theater. Audiences are eager to see this show. When tickets went on sale in August, people lined up at the box office, loitered in the lobby, stood outside the theater and sat down upstairs in the Renee Foosaner art gallery where cheerful staff members served coffee to would-be spectators while they waited for their number to be called at the box office.
Nearly everyone who knows the film on which the show is based has fond memories of Gene Kelly splashing about in a tour de force solo dancing and "Singin' in the Rain," or Donald O'Connor excelling at acrobatics to "Make 'em Laugh" or Kelly, O'Connor and Debbie Reynolds, perennial optimists all, greeting the dawn with a perky "Good Mornin'." If the stage show lacks the charisma of the movie classic, it has a certain cachet. Relatively new to the regions, it is not yet part of the charmed circle of old musical chestnuts, though nearly anyone with any life span at all ought to be at least acquainted with the Nacio Herb Brown-Arthur Freed score.
Typically the Paper Mill thespians aim to give their show its own luster. Judging by New Jersey theatrical standards, they're the ones to do it. Director James Rocco admits the show suffers from what he considers to be an inaccurate perception that it simply doesn't work on stage. That's not so, Rocco avers. He should know, since the Paper Mill production is his third staging of the show, after prior renditions at Sacramento Light Opera in California and at Music Theatre of Wichita in Kansas. Strengthening the Paper Mill cast are Michael Gruber, Christina Saffran and Randy Rogel, who reprise their Sacramento roles of Don Lockwood, Kathy Selden and Cosmo Brown (the parts played in the movie by Kelly, Reynolds and O’Connor). Deborah jolly joins the cast in the featured role of Lina Lamont, the shrill silent screen star who can't talk to save her screeching life.
Rocco theorizes the show fails in extravagant productions. That's an amusing observation in light of Paper Mill's sumptuous million dollar musicals, and Rocco is no stranger to them. He acted Judas opposite Robert Johanson as Jesus in the Playhouse's opulent production of Jesus Christ Superstar and directed with Johanson Paper Mill's rousing Oklahoma!. Nonetheless he insists, with all the big numbers, fantastic settings, period costumes spanning two centuries and full orchestral accompaniment to all the songs and dances, romance is at the heart of Singin' in the Rain. "It's about two people falling in love," he says.
His point is taken well when one recalls a ballad Don sings to Kathy: "You Were Meant for Me." Its romantic lyrics, sung on a spacious stage, empty save for the reluctant couple, are convincing: "you were meant for me. and I was meant for you. Nature patterned you and when she was done, you were all the sweet things rolled into one."
What's more, Rocco says the show is about friendship. Don and Cosmo are pals as well as successful collaborators since childhood. Their humorous repartee spurs the story. "They go through life together," comments Rocco. Besides doing stand-out solos, the two young men double nicely in numbers ranging from "Fit as a Fiddle" to "Moses Supposes."
With all the talk of small personal moments infusing the show, there is no question it plays against a splendid backdrop: the movies. Hollywood in one of its heydays is the framework. Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont are the leading lights of silent films such as "The Royal Rascal." a new day is about to dawn in celluloid history, however, thus the aptness of "Good mornin'" as a cue. Sound is heard and herein lies the dilemma. Actors must speak in mellifluous tones: enter the sweet-voiced Kathy and exit the rasping Lina-except the latter isn't going quietly.
There is plenty of plotting to go around and even some drama, but the emphasis is on entertainment. The Paper Mill artisans, up to their usual wizardry, busily have been working behind the scenes showing off their talents, from making a silent film to creating a rainy night. Roy Miller, assistant to producer Angelo Del Rossi, called into play his film affinity and helped Rocco make a movie at Paper Mill. In a bit of typecasting, Del Rossi plays the producer. "By now I've filmed this movie more often than Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen," quips Rocco. Actors, a state of mind away in New York, have rehearsed one scene after another, singing, dancing and acting their way to opening night Wednesday.
Ebullient Rocco is delighted at Kathy Selden (acted by Christina Saffran) auditioning successfully for a movie role. She sings "You Are my Lucky Star." For another scene replete with comedy but underscored by drama, a subdued Rocco listens intently, watches closely and quietly takes aside a performer for a private chat about some crucial stage points. Rocco's co-choreographer, Linda Goodrich, puts the dancers through graceful paces. Furrowed brows vie with supple ballet as agile dancers glide back and forth across the floor, again and again, to Goodrich's snapping fingers and repeating cadences: one-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight.
"I love collaboration!" declares jubilant Rocco. "I'm all for it!" He can count on it at Paper Mill where expertise is integral to the theater's phenomenal success. Avid audiences play their parts too. Seldom can they look forward to humming so many songs on their way out of the theater. Take "Singin' in the Rain." Its sunny lyrics belie its title: "I'm
singin' in the rain, just singin' in the rain, what a glorious feelin', I'm happy again...I'll walk down the lane with a happy refrain, just singin', singin' in the rain."
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