Director Sylvia Schnople and choreographer Kate Mullis had two options while preparing the regional premiere of “Singin’ in the Rain” for Davidson Community Players.
They could tailor the show to people who weren’t gifted dancers, risking the wrath of audience members who insisted on seeing a stage replication of the 1952 movie. Or they could try as closely as possible to recreate dance routines made immortal by elegant Gene Kelly and comical Donald O’Connor.
They chose wrongly, and that decision haunts the production at almost every step.
Dan Brunson has a strong singing voice, easygoing charm and a sense of how to move around a stage as Don Lockwood, Kelly’s role. Matt Merrell has an entertaining, slightly satiric zest as Cosmo Brown, whom O’Connor played.
But if you set the stage to replicate all the comic business in Cosmo’s “Make ’Em Laugh,” the actor playing him has to run up a wall and come off in a backflip. If you do the extended “Broadway Melody” number – injected into the film solely to give Kelly an amazing duet with Cyd Charisse – the actor playing Don must dance like a whirlwind. Brunson sings the opening to that number – “Gotta dance! Gotta dance!” – and then vanishes, leaving the stage to an ill-at-ease chorus.
The play follows the picture’s plot. Don, long teamed with vain actress Lina Lamont onscreen, realizes she won’t make the jump from silent pictures to talkies. He’s drawn professionally and personally to vivacious young actress Kathy Selden, who becomes part of a joyful trio with Don and Cosmo.
Emily Klingman, who replaced another actress as Kathy in the past week, has the right kind of plucky charm and good humor, though she too often sang below pitch Thursday at Duke Family Performance Hall. Della Knowles misunderstands Lina: Her ugly speaking voice should be screechy, not unintelligible.
The show goes slowly, because technicians take a lot of time carrying set pieces on and off for short scenes – another reason why “Rain” might have overwhelmed any community theater. (On Broadway, units would have moved on and off in seconds, as actors were entering or exiting.)
The show scores in its filmed segments, where Don and Lina wrangle with primitive recording equipment. And it really does rain onstage, in a confined space with clear sky on both sides. Don splashes around merrily, but that cramped scene reminds us again why trying to recreate the movie’s magic was the wrong way to go.
‘Singin’ in the Rain’
When: Through June 26 at 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Duke Family Performance Hall, Davidson College.
Tickets: $15-29 ($23-$27 seniors, $14-$17 students).
Running time: 160 minutes with one intermission.