'What a Glorious Feeling' brings back the magic

In tedious, conformist, mid-'50s America, there was little to light the imagination and inspire hope. But the art form known as the "musical" helped a lot, what with all these people suddenly bursting into song and prancing about on the movie screen, confessing all their deepest fears, joys and longings.

For the past quarter-century, Oregon Cabaret Theatre has been energizing that tradition. It's a blast to sit there and have dinner and wine — maybe dessert at intermission — while reincarnations of Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds, two exuberant, upbeat professionals, give it their all in "What a Glorious Feeling."

What was it about Gene Kelly? The hot body in the tight-fitting shirt? The sure steps of a clearly athletic, masculine master of dance? The irrepressible happiness of a fella dancing with his umbrella in a downpour? Netanel Bellaishe captures it, though he is clearly torn and filled with modern, 21st-century angst about falling in love with his producer-friend's ex-wife, played by Katie Worley.

Luscious lust is lovingly bursting out all over, and both men dance it convincingly with the object of their affections — all this based on real-life backstory of the time. Who will get the girl? Would there be any musicals without that question hanging in the air? The ex-husband, played by Michael Danovich, still loves his ex, but she has a thing for Gene — and who wouldn't?

This is the story behind the hit "Singin' in the Rain," a 1952 movie — the high point of Kelly's career and of musical movies — and when you go to YouTube and watch Kelly hoofing the title song, well, you'd fall in love with him, too. Such a suave gentleman, managing both to understate the piece and knock your eyes out with his mastery of it. It's a tall order to sing and dance an icon like Kelly, and Bellaishe nails it.

The songs are a wild collection of earlier Broadway hits, including the top-10 charter from my boyhood that I hoped to get through life without hearing again: "Abba Dabba Honeymoon." Search the song on Wikipedia, and you learn that Thomas Pynchon called it "the nadir of all American expression," which he expected would be playing when they slid his body into the oven. For all that, the song is irresistibly cute.

And what makes it darling? It's that irresistible Shaeny Johnson (playing Debbie Reynolds), whom my concertmate Ann says brings such charisma, energy and bubbly, delightful innocence to the stage that she pilfers the production. If she doesn't go places — big places — we wanna know why.

Delighting in the musical and seated at a table next to us is the Ing family, with retired Jefferson Public Radio personality Gina Ing noting that Gene Kelly was "fabulous, so fun, watched 'Singin' in the Rain' over and over," and this production brought it all back.

Go to OCT's Facebook page and, from the photos and comments, get a feel for the energy, humor and beauty of this special show, directed and choreographed by Christopher George Patterson, with musical direction by Chad Dickerson. Playwright is Jay Berkow. It has evening performances Thursdays through Sundays at 8 and Saturday and Sunday brunch matinees at 1 p.m. through Nov. 6.

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