Singin’ Their Praises

Published: July 6, 2006
For those of you who love The Sound of Music, it would probably seem unimaginable to think of anyone else playing Maria other than Julie Andrews. Or try picturing The King and I without Yul Brynner. You could hardly blame actors for harboring some trepidation if they were offered a chance to tackle such iconic roles.

Now imagine trying to play Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds’ characters in a stage version of one of the most beloved movie musicals of all time, 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain. Daunting is one word that comes to mind. Another is terrifying.

Well, now you know what’s going through the minds of Matt Loehr (Don Lockwood, the Gene Kelly role), Mark Ledbetter (Cosmo Brown, the Donald O’Connor character) and Kelly Felthous (Kathy Seldon, the Debbie Reynolds part). They’re taking on these roles for the month of July as “Singin’ in the Rain” comes to the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly.

There’s another name you can add to that list of as well. It’s Richard Stafford - he’s the show’s director. And he certainly had some feelings of nervousness at the thought of directing a musical in which so many people have seen the film version and list it as one of their Top 10 all-time movies. It’s probably not surprising that it even took Broadway 34 years to embrace the challenge, debuting the stage version in 1986.

“I was really apprehensive before we went into casting,” Stafford says. “I didn’t want to hire someone who looked like Gene Kelly or Donald O’Connor. I wanted fresh, young, exciting actors. I want to transport people to seeing the roles we’ve created. We’re not trying to be someone we’re not. No one can compete with Gene Kelly.”

No one is more aware of that than Loehr. This was, after all, the movie that made him want to be an actor. When he was younger, he says his parents wanted him to see this movie, but he kept putting them off. Then one day he was sick and he stayed home from school; with nothing else to do, he thought he’d give it a try. “I was lying in bed watching it,” he says. “It was hysterical. I saw it 100 times since. It kicked things in gear for me. I think it’s the greatest role I could ever play.”

Catching the spirit

Hollywood in the 1920s is the setting for Singin’ in the Rain, a zany, light-hearted romantic comedy about the early days of sound film, when many a movie studio found itself scrambling to salvage the careers of silent picture stars whose mousy voices may not have matched their matinee looks. The score is packed with brilliant dance numbers and snappy tunes like “Make ’em Laugh,” “Moses Supposes,” “Good Mornin’,” “You Are My Lucky Star” and the title song.

And like Stafford, Loehr says he and the rest of the cast have no intention of trying to outshine the movie.

“We can’t top the movie,” he says. “We want to catch the spirit of the movie.”

That’s how Ledbetter sees it as well. For fans of the movie, one of the most memorable scenes - and there are many to choose from - comes when Cosmo sings “Make ’em Laugh.” Part of his dance includes running up a wall, flipping over and landing smoothly on his feet, and doing it again before propelling himself right through the wall on the third try.

“I was daunted by what Donald O’Connor did with this role,” Ledbetter admits.

One thing that’s making tackling this role a little easier is that fact that the dance move described above isn’t in NSMT production. The theater is in the round, so there’s no wall for Ledbetter to dance up. (Which is probably for the best - O’Connor reportedly had to rest his aching body for three days after filming that scene.)

Nonetheless, Ledbetter says he’s thrilled about this opportunity.

“I have the same story as Matt [Loehr],” he says. After seeing the movie when he was about 10, it started him on dance lessons. “I wanted to get my hands on everything Gene Kelly did.”

And after showing up for practices for varsity sports in high school, he would then head out for dance lessons. He would take an advanced dance class in the morning and then one with kids his age in the afternoon. “Tap came to me real quick,” he says.

Those lessons paid off, as Stafford is thrilled with Ledbetter. “The Cosmo [portrayal] is tremendously funny,” he says.

Chorus girl makes good

Felthous has a different story than Ledbetter and Loehr. First of all, she only recently saw the movie for the first time. Secondly, she had no intention of playing the Debbie Reynolds character.

A student at New York University, Felthous auditioned as part of the ensemble.

“I needed a job for the summer and I thought, I’ll be fine tapping in the chorus,” she says. When she returned for her callback, Stafford asked her to sing for the role of Kathy. In true classic Hollywood tradition, she got the part - it couldn’t have seemed more scripted if she’d been being discovered at the soda counter in Schwab’s drug store.

“As soon as I saw her I said, this girl has got something,” Stafford says.

She has fans too in Loehr and Ledbetter. “You need to know how truly impressive it is to be picked [for a leading role] out of an open chorus call,” Ledbetter says.

Felthous, who is 20 - just a year older than Reynolds was when she first played the role alongside veterans Kelly and O’Connor - has been dancing since she was 3. Her mother owned a dance studio in San Diego. By the time she was 8, she was singing and acting in professional shows.

During a recent interview with these actors, you get the sense they’ve known each other for years or have at least worked together in the past. They play off each other that way. Neither statement is true, but it’s that chemistry that Stafford says will make the audiences forget the movie and concentrate on this production.

“They all bring truth to their roles. It’s not about trying to bring someone else’s truth,” Stafford says. “We are telling a story about Hollywood in 1927 and what that was like. At the same time we’re telling a love story and that has to shine through.”

“Ninety percent of a director’s job is casting,” says Ledbetter. “You’re looking for ... the sparks between them.”

So when you see this production, don’t bellyache that Loehr isn’t Gene Kelly. You never know, you might be sitting next to the family members of these three actors. Let’s not forget, it was their parents who got them involved in the first place.

“Both my parents are besides themselves,” Loehr says. “I can’t describe the feeling when I told them. I was absolutely giddy. And now they are not as worried about me making a living at this.”

After all, their son is following in Gene Kelly’s footsteps. Literally.

And as Ledbetter reminds us, “It’s a movie our parents know just as well as we do. It’s such a thrill to see their children do it. They love all the shows I’m in, but this one is really exciting.”