Friday, November 9, 2012

REVIEW: Gotta Dance for Prairie Ground's Splashing "Singin' in the Rain"


"Singin' in the Rain" was made 60 years ago and is, perhaps, the greatest film musical ever made. If you've never seen it, you should. The movie stars Gene Kelly as Don Lockwood, Donald O'Conner as Cosmo Brown and Debbie Reynolds as Kathy Seldon in the leads, with Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont. You would be hard-pressed to find performers who could fill those shoes--especially Kelly's dancing shoes. I would be afraid to even try at a high school. But Prairie Ground theater director (and the show's choreographer) Claire Verity did try and pretty much pulled it off.

I read the program's Director's Notes by Verity for Prairie Ground's "Singin' in the Rain" and tears came to my eyes. I could not say it any better than she has so I'm going to quote her (in part) here:

"Debbie Reynolds...was 18 when she was cast as Kathy in the film. She was a gymnast, not a dancer. The film was a challenge for her. She has said, 'Gene Kelly made me work so hard that I'd almost pass out trying to keep up.' She maintains, 'The two hardest things I ever did in my life are childbirth and "Singin' in the Rain".' She reported that after 14 hours of shooting the song and dance number 'Good Mornin',' when she took off her little blue shoes, her feet were bleeding from all the dancing. She also admitted that, 'He worked me hard, but he taught me so well...'

"Many of the students you will see tonight have worked harder than they ever imagined they could, to accomplish things that they might not have imagined themselves doing even a year ago. Kids who never danced are dazzling us with tap numbers. Kids who never sang have discovered their voices. Why have the worked so hard? For love -- love of the theatre, love of each other, of this remarkable process -- this work, and for friendships and memories that will last the rest of their lives. It has been my great privilege to teach and direct them and to witness that love grow."

Ashlee Waldbauer as Kathy Seldon and Nick Hulscher as Don Lockwood.
The story is simple: A movie studio makes the transition from silent pictures to the talkies. It is also a story of friendship and of the love between a star and a rising star and the falling starlet who stands in the way.

Star Power

It is the school district's own student star power that make this production worth seeing. That and the delightful, enduring song and dance numbers. Not to mention the hilarious and expertly done film sequences by Jason Foster. Kudos Jason!

Hoofing Hulscher, tapping to the title tune.
Nick Hulscher plays the dashing silent film star Don Lockwood. He has a nice voice, acts well, is indeed good looking and he can dance. I mean, he can dance. He nearly tore up the floor while performing the title tap sequence which was so nicely choreographed by Verity. Hulscher, according to director Verity, is not a formally trained dancer. No years of lessons. However, he had to have put in hour upon hour to master the title tap alone. And it wasn't just going through the steps either; it was graceful and expressive. Not all of his dance numbers were as clean, but they were all quite good. (A good safety pin will do wonders for that fly, BTW.)

Ashlee Waldbauer delightfully plays Kathy Seldon, Don's love interest. Her singing voice is truly lovely, very much like Reynolds, and spot on. She nailed the song "Good Mornin'" and performed her dance numbers with great aplomb. Plus she is pretty and expressive and her acting was top notch. In all these ways she reminds me of one of my favorite actresses: Amy Adams.

Josh Snider as Cosmo.
Josh Snider plays Cosmo Brown, Don's lifelong buddy. Cosmo provides much of the show's comic relief. He also has one of the most creative and dynamic dance sequences in the musical, "Make 'em Laugh." You'd have to channel Donald O'Conner to get it 100% right since he was an amazing fireball of a performer. Well, Snider comes pretty close. He has that boyish charm and class clown playfulness. Not quite the same intensity and skill, but he is good. Opening night some of the props for the number didn't come out as they should have; he moved through the dance seamlessly and professionally anyway. I only know because I was told.

Sarah Russell as Lina Lamont
Sarah Russell as Lina Lamont nearly steals the show. Why? First of all Lamont is probably the hardest character to play. Secondly, there is a big expectation for the character from the movie and Russell does homage to that iconic role. Thirdly, you have to be willing to be self-effacive. And finally, Russell's talent is a jewel. She also is quite expressive and seems to have genuine comic timing. She has the right voice down pat. Her responses/reactions are a joy to watch. And her solo number "What's Wrong with Me?" was great, just the right amount of character and real voice (to let us know she has a good one).  So fun and funny! Nothing wrong with this performance.

Other standouts were Rose Caughie who played the bit role of Zelda Zanders with panache; Cole Johnson in various bit parts, but especially as the villain; and Brady Foley as the director Roscoe Dexter. The ensemble as a whole was enjoyable.

Diana Ferar, (center) as the Sexy Green Lady;
Austin Foley (left) as Rod [or is it Mr. Big?].
The chorus and dance numbers were ably executed. All the choreography was excellent. I especially liked the cake dance and "Gotta Dance" and, though it certainly taxed Hulscher's abilities, it was very well done. But it was his dance to "Singin' in the Rain" that, like in the movie, was the piece de reistance. Original, yet a great homage. Diana Ferar (we loved her as 99 in "Get Smart"), always a good dancer, was pretty wild as the Sexy Green Lady.

Sycronization of Sound and Picture

While the costumes were stunningly glorious, the sparse sets were rather simple and sometimes dressed quite shabbily. They had the Hollywood glitz in the apparel, but it was not apparent in the set. Some pieces needed a touch-up from shabby (the piano, the ladder, etc.) to make them musical-quality chic. The excellent period hair and make-up was a real plus.

As mentioned, one of the best parts of the production was the well-conceived "film" sequences created by Jason Foster (please put them on YouTube). Well worth the price of admission alone.

There were some small technical glitches like lagging light cues and crackling mics on opening night. Most of the lighting issues could be corrected by using more standard fixtures to light scenes and not relying on followspots to perform the duty. However, most of the lighting was well conceived. The use of color-mixing fixtures on the cyc and the use of scrim with projection (especially the curtain warmer) were lovely. I also like the use of the stage wall in the title dance though I was hoping for a better rain effect.

The band, "prepared and conducted" by Greg McKelvey, was not prepared quite well enough evidently. The volume level was good, but there was a lot of "lippage slippage" around the right notes from the brass, so much so it was hard, at times, on the ears. This was not generally true for the vocalist (vocal and musical direction by Darcy Schmitt) both soloists and chorus who, in spite of a wavering band, stayed on melody.

A Happy Ending

Featured Dancers in their flapper costumes. All photos by Michael Verity.
I think you will be amazed at the talent in the cast of Prairie Ground's "Singin' in the Rain."

I was.

The two high schools really have some great performers and I'm pretty sure Claire Verity, true* to her calling, loves her job. She seems to really pull a lot out of the teens she works with, inspiring them, encouraging them and pushing them to do their best.

*Verity, BTW, is Latin for truth.

This is truly a delightful production, directed with great love and homage, that you really MUST see.

WARNING: There's an awful lot of kissing in the show. ;) lol

Prairie/Ground Drama (the combined theater departments of Prairie and Battle Ground High Schools) offer "Singing in the Rain" at Prairie High School, 11500 N.E. 117th Ave., now through November 17. Show dates are 8, 9, 10, 15, 16, and 17. Curtain at 7 p.m., doors open at 6:30.

Tickets and ticket information are available online at

By Gregory E. Zschomler
All photos by Michael Verity, provided

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