In the Golden Age of Hollywood when the silent film evolved into talkies, a musician-turned-stuntman-turned-actor, Don Lockwood, danced his way onto a film set with leading lady and heart throb Lina Lamont. Media perpetuated a “cooked-up romance” between the two in the 1952 hit “Singin’ in the Rain.” Enter Kathy Selden, a stage actress, who challenges the egotistical movie star, Lockwood, and his aptitude as a true actor. What ensues is a comedic love story that has glamor, glitz, and a whole lot of big dance and music numbers. The penultimate movie musical will move from screen to stage this weekend at Thalian Hall, thanks to Thalian Association’s latest production, led by Mirla Criste. This is Criste’s first time directing for the association.
“My husband and I moved to Wilmington in 2011, but I got a little waylaid and didn’t engage with the theatre community until the fall of 2013, when I met Zach Hanner and joined the board of his nonprofit, Theatre Network of Wilmington,” Criste says. A part-time teacher in the theatre department at UNCW, Criste has directed two shows at TheatreNOW thus far, and before was involved in professional, academic and community theatre elsewhere.
“Suffice it to say that theatre and dance have been pretty much my life, since getting cast as a dancer/child in Arena Civic Theatre’s Carousel, in Greenfield, Massachusetts, a thousand years ago,” she quips.
Criste already has been praised locally. She won Best Supporting Actress for her work in “Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike” at the 2015 Wilmington Theater Awards. “Singin’ in the Rain” is her favorite movie musical. She calls it a complete piece of performance art—“a true Gesamtkunstwerk.”
“In an hour-and-a-half, we get singable music, a variety of Gene-Kelly-choreographed and executed dances, tightly-paced humor, romance, memorable characterizations, exciting spectacle, and for me an almost perfectly written arc,” she tells. “I’ve been in love with the movie since I first saw it.”
Criste has stuck to the original script and jazzy choreography forthrightly. The score will be led by Amanda Hunter. Some adjustments have been made between its film and stage adaptations. “The scores aren’t identical, for one thing, so you’ll also see some of my own choreography in several sections,” Criste tells. Yet, like the movie, the songs propel the action of the play. “They integrate seamlessly into the story,” Criste adds. “Each number has its own very distinct character—that was the genius of the music’s composers and of Gene Kelly’s choreography.”
Bringing those famed tap dances and more to life will be a cast of 35. The leads consist of Tracy Byrd as Don Lockwood, Brad Mercier as Don’s best friend Cosmo Brown, Courtney Poland as Kathy Selden, and Hannah Smith as Lina Lamont. Criste knew she wanted to work with Byrd after seeing his extraordinary performance in “Kiss Me, Kate” last year.
“Three words: ‘Too Darn Hot,’” Criste explains of the local actor’s talent. “This was the number that stopped the show dead for me during Opera House’s ‘Kiss Me Kate’ last year. I just about jumped out of my seat after Tracy’s phenomenal performance. I chased him down at the Wilmington Theater Awards to ask him to audition for either of the two male leads [in ‘Singin’’], and boy was I lucky he was interested. He’s been nothing short of a revelation.”
Byrd has hoped to bring the iconic lead number to life since childhood. He would mimic Gene Kelly’s moves often as a kid. “To actually get a chance to perform it is a dream come true,” he says. “I think it changed the way everyone viewed musicals back then.”
The classic tale is inspiring, according to Byrd, and highlights excitement and drama. He’s staying true to his formula of remaining honest with himself and his character. “Everything else will take care of itself,” Byrd says. “What I love about the role of Don Lockwood the most is how happy and charismatic he is—not to mention I get to sing, dance and act almost the entire show. Don was a very fun-loving gentlemen but he also took care of business.”
Courtney Poland as Don’s love interest, Kathy Selden, matches Byrd’s dazzle. A woman focused on becoming the greatest at her craft through hard work and passion, Poland says she’s learning a lot from her character’s strong personality.
“I love that Kathy is true to herself,” Poland says. “She can be a bit stubborn and hard-headed, but has a gentleness to her and grows significantly throughout her relationship with Don. I am learning from Kathy to let things happen even if they aren’t in the plan or on the calendar. I am a planner and I have very rigid goals, much like Kathy . . . Kathy is teaching me that sometimes the biggest gifts in life are unexpected and we have to let them in.”
Poland has been a fan of the film her whole life. She often watched it with her grandparents and found a deep connection to its actors. “Years from now, women will still aspire to have the grace and poise that Debbie Reynolds has, and men will still strive for the masculinity and romance that Gene Kelly possesses,” she says. Even today, Poland turns to the movie to lift her spirits. “It just makes me so happy—the music, the costumes, the smiling faces, the story, every aspect of it,” she says.
A favorite scene is the quintessential crowd-pleasing “Good Mornin’.” The intricate dance numbers and chemistry between Poland, Byrd and Mercier captures the film’s timeless feel-good exploration. “We are all very different people and very different performers, but I love how we have all worked so hard to come together and make this number great,” Poland explains.
Kathy Selden is a role Poland never expected to land. Primarily a singer, the actress has learned from Criste’s direction not to box in her talents. Actor, singer and dancer are now a part of her résumé. “Mirla believes in us to be all three,” Poland says.
Criste takes chances that often pay off. In fact, she cast a young guy whom had never had dance or music training. “He auditioned because his girlfriend auditioned,” Criste tells.
“And he’s been fabulous—extremely reliable and already behaving like a professional, while having a great time. I’ve given him quite a bit of responsibility, and he’s completely stepped up. I’d cast him again in a second. That’s one of the things I’ve enjoyed the most: Discovering what each member of the company is willing to contribute to the larger picture has been enlightening and rewarding.”
The timeless, elegant and feel-good show opens on Thursday, May 23, at 7:30 p.m. on the main stage of Thalian Hall. “We get to experience it through characters who are a lot like us,” Criste adds, “who develop deep and long-lasting friendships, meet and fall in love, struggle with their sense of self, and navigate career difficulties—just like we do now.”
Singin’ in the Rain
Thurs.-Sat., 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.
310 Chestnut St.