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BACKSTAGE 'SINGIN' IN THE RAIN' : Getting Misty : The director of the runaway hit '42nd Street' presents another adaptation of an upbeat blockbuster movie musical.

February 21, 1991|PHILIP BRANDES | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Will lightning strike twice? That's the question on everyone's mind as director Jon Engstrom guides his ensemble's dancing feet through a rehearsal for the Santa Barbara Civic Light Opera's production of "Singin' in the Rain," which opens this week at the Lobero Theatre.

Assembling the entire cast for the party scene, Engstrom positions his performers like pieces on a chessboard. "I want this to look like a cast of thousands," he says emphatically, "which we are not. So one thing you should never, never do is stand directly behind someone else . . . "

It was the same Jon Engstrom who directed and choreographed the SBCLO production of "42nd Street," the runaway hit that broke Central Coast box office records two seasons ago and established SBCLO as a major Central Coast theater venue, one that continues to draw half its 17,000 attendees per run from Ventura County. But even by the high standards of SBCLO productions, "42nd Street" was something special--an unabashedly glamorous and gushy homage to Broadway rags-to--riches sagas in which romanticism won out over sober realism (for a few hours, at least).

The show's success was largely credited to Engstrom's nearly messianic zeal for perfection. "In a few short weeks," he points out, "we transformed a chorus of amateurs--many of whom had never tap-danced before--into a professional ensemble that successfully performed without compromise all the complex steps of the original 1980 Broadway version. And when we finished we had a big hit. On opening night I was proud for myself, but I was more proud for them. And I felt vindicated for what I'd put them through."

Can he do it again with "Singin' in the Rain"?

There are some obvious similarities between the two shows that Engstrom hopes will translate into a repeat success.

Both were '80s stage adaptations of upbeat blockbuster movie musicals, built around razzle-dazzle song and dance numbers without undue preoccupation with the complexities of plot.

And both shows take a lighthearted look at the passions and foibles of show business.

"Singin' in the Rain" is a romantic comedy about the advent of sound in motion pictures and the resulting chaos it brought to the Hollywood stars of the silent era. The screenplay was written in 1950 around an unconnected compilation of songs penned by lyricist and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer producer Arthur Freed and composer Nacio Herb Brown in the '20s and '30s. Freed handed the pile of songs to Betty Comden and Adolf Green and instructed them to write an original story named after one of them. The eventual result was the film starring Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor that made movie history. Comden and Green also wrote the 1983 stage adaptation.

In this production, Engstrom has for the most part resisted the ever-present director's temptation to reshape the material. "I love the movie," Engstrom says, "so I'm being very faithful to the characters. I'm not trying to change them--if it works, why fix it? Someday I'd like to get my hands on a show with a good premise that doesn't work and then I can let my ego come into play, and see what I can do to fix it. But this show doesn't need fixing so there's no reason to tamper with it."

The SBCLO show features all the Broadway production numbers (including an ingenious deck constructed to heat and recycle the same 300 gallons of water for the famous Gene Kelly "rain dance" sequence throughout the run).

Surface similarities and glitzy "hydrotechnics" aside, Engstrom finds that "Singin' in the Rain" has turned out to be a very different type of show from his previous SBCLO experience. "It's an about-face from '42nd Street,' though I didn't realize that until I got into it. It seems similar--it's from the same period, the '20s and '30s. But what I've come to realize is that the star of '42nd Street' is the ensemble, and even though you have relationships you need to develop, it's even more important that you have to have a fabulous ensemble that's tight and can knock off those numbers. You can make that show work without the most brilliant of leads, because it's all in the production values of the show.

" 'Singin' in the Rain,' on the other hand, depends on the characters rather than the ensemble. This show is basically about four characters--that's where the challenge is.

"When I first saw it done on stage, all I could think about was the movie, all the way through. Because the musical version almost replicated the movie--the dialogue is practically verbatim. And even though it was a very good production, afterward I thought why not just watch the movie? I never got absorbed in the people's relationship--I just kept comparing it to the movie. Beautifully done, but clinical.

"The challenge for us is to get our audience drawn into the relationship, so they'll forget about comparisons and care about what happens to these people. If we do that, and entertain them, then it's been a success."

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