Director Tom Mullen conceived the intimate small-cast show, which he calls "a play with music" and an "exploration of creative and romantic temperaments" set in the heyday of the M-G-M movie musicals. It's also a revealing portrait of the late dancer-actor-director-choreographer Kelly, played by Broadway Contact veteran Sean Martin Hingston.
Following a February workshop in Manhattan, What a Glorious Feeling plays its more fully realized (yet still modest) test run Aug. 24-Sept. 11 at Mason Street Warehouse, the three-year-old resident Equity house that Mullen runs with co-artistic producing director Kurt Stamm in Saugatuck, MI.
Mullen and Stamm are New York City directors who started the summer season at Mason Street because of the "savvy fine arts community" and a perceived need for performing arts in the Lake Michigan shore town. During the year, they split their time between Michigan and New York.
In its first two seasons, MSW produced seven plays and musicals including I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change; Dirty Blonde; Our Sinatra; Smokey Joe's Café; Full Gallop; Bright Ideas; and the world premiere film noir spoof musical Wicked City.
The MSW company, housed in a 181-seat black box within the Saugatuck Center for the Arts (a former pie factory), focuses on new musical theatre with contemporary content. The summer 2005 season — MSW's third season — also includes Michigan premieres of Nunsensations! (the latest sequel to Nunsense, which places the Little Sisters of Hoboken in Las Vegas), The Thing About Men (June 22-July 10), Honky Tony Highway (Aug. 3-21), and the American regional-theatre premiere of the Tony Award-winning musical Urinetown (directed by Mullen July 13-31). What a Glorious Feeling, however, might be considered the highlight of the season for its sheer ambition: A new piece — with Broadway players in the cast — borrowing legendary real-life show biz names and using songs from the M-G-M movie musical catalog.
The piano and percussion show doesn't use famous songs to advance plot (that characters aren't singing to one another, per se). The tunes show rehearsals, set a mood or create the atmosphere of the studio system in the 1950s.
Mullen told Playbill.com that Gene Kelly is not seen here as the clean-cut, fresh-faced character known from such pictures as "On the Town," "Anchors Aweigh" and "Singin' in the Rain." He's driven, conflicted, jealous and demanding.
In the show, as in life, his partnership with director Stanley Donen splinters professionally and personally. Dancer Jeanne Coyne, a dance assistant for the men, is the woman in the middle of a romantic triangle here. She eventually became wife to both men, at different times. Donen is the only one of the three still living.
The cast includes Broadway Contact veterans Sean Martin Hingston as Gene Kelly and Colleen Dunn as Jeanne Coyne, and Broadway veteran Michael Gruber (Swing!, Kiss Me, Kate, My Favorite Year) as Stanley Donen, with Brynn Curry as a young Debbie Reynolds and Gordon Thompson as Arthur Freed and Busby Berkeley.
Mullen, a fan of the 1952 movie "Singin' in the Rain," which is considered by many to be the apex of M-G-M's musical films, read biographies of Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, including a book by Kelly's ex-wife Betsy Blair, and "was intrigued that Kelly and Donen never spoke again after 'Singin' in the Rain' — although they had to when they fulfilled a studio contract [for 'It's Always Fair Weather']."
When Mullen discovered there were professional and personal complications with dancer Coyne, Mullen felt he stumbled onto the stuff of good backstage musicals — and, he said, the makings for a good episode of an "E! True Hollywood Story."
Jay Berkow (Off-Broadway's popular Jolson and Company) wrote the book to What a Glorious Feeling.
Jamie Rocco is choreographing and has choice song material to work with, including tunes from "Royal Wedding," "Singin' in the Rain," "Cover Girl," "On the Town," "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and obscurities cut from "Singin' in the Rain" more.
Mullen said the style of What a Glorious Feeling is unique and not traditional.
"It's a play with music and dance," he said. "You'll see the rehearsal process, fragments of routines and sections of famous numbers. There's very little singing it, there's a lot dance — Jamie Rocco's calling it a hybrid show."
The skeletons of famous movie dance routines are seen in What a Glorious Feeling, and Rocco also creates his own original choreography. Video will also be used in the show, but no M-G-M material is being screened.
Is it a negative view of Kelly? "I think it's a really great emotionally-hopeful piece," Mullen said. "You get to see this man who think you know so well. You see his madness and his genius and you feel incredibly sympathetic toward him."
Designers are Robert Wojik (costume), Jen Kules (lighting), George Lee (set) and Steve Tabor (sound). Michael Sobie is musical director.
For information about Mason Street Warehouse, visit www.masonstreetwarehouse.org.