By Jim Rutter
FOR THE INQUIRER
If you believe the story in Jay Berkow’s What a Glorious Feeling, mammoth egos and a treacherous love triangle almost derailed the production of Singin’ in the Rain. At Bristol Riverside Theatre, you do believe it.
Berkow’s partly fabricated script reveals the drama behind the making of the celebrated 1952 comedy: Gene Kelly (Charles Osborne) hired his young assistant director (and later, fiercest competitor) Stanley Donen (Zak Edwards) and Donen’s former wife, dancer Jeanne Coyne (Summer Broyhill) to help shoot and choreograph.
Unknown to Kelly, Donen still wants to reunite with Coyne, who’s loved the then-married Kelly unrequitedly since she was his dance student in Pittsburgh. Throw into this mix the decline of the big-budget musical film, a new studio head vetoing every expenditure, and a quirky newcomer (the adorable Liz Filios as Debbie Reynolds), and by the end of act one, Coyne fled Hollywood, Donen quit for another project, and Kelly collapses from pneumonia. The film remained unfinished.
Director Susan D. Atkinson’s visceral staging keeps the tensions high throughout. Giddy songs from a slew of movie musicals accompany long periods of deep audience silence recoiling from the verbal violence onstage. However, her casting detracts from the conflict’s force; Osborne’s imperiousness pairs well with his muscular dancing, but Edward’s smoother looks and better dance skills dampens Kelly’s romantic appeal (moreover, Broyhill lacks chemistry with both actors).
Like all Kelly and Donen’s films, Stephen Casey’s evocative tap-filled choreography tells much of the story. In the pivotal scene, the contrast between Coyne and Donen’s delicate, conventional pairing and the fiery, violent passion of her and Kelly’s coupling reduces the love triangle to a primal battle with one clear victor. The silent opening sequence illustrates Kelly’s manic narcissism; dancing before a mirror, he freezes between each series of staccatoed steps only to stare at his own self-pondering reflection.
The writing trades long on conversations led by exposition-generating questions and dialogue drowning in filmisms (regarding a divorce: “plenty of foreshadowing for that twist”). Cinephiles will catch all the dated jokes; only the cast’s unwavering commitment to Berkow’s style gives it any credulity.
The pat ending, as tacked on as it is enjoyable, insists on the play’s potent theme. As another film from that era put it, “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”. Great art must matter more.
What a Glorious Feeling. Presented through November 18 at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe St. Bristol, PA. Tickets: $41 to $54. Information: 215-785-0100 or brtstage.org