Gene Kelly:The Legacy

Melinda Schupmann Reviews - Theater

Gene Kelly's decision to marry archivist Patricia Ward Kelly is one of the great lucky strokes for those who want to preserve theatrical history. Inheriting his papers, memorabilia, and pieces of ephemera after his death in 1996 allows her to guarantee that his entire collection will be accurately and lovingly kept intact. She claims she has 85 file cabinets to date, and she is still unpacking boxes. We learn this at her articulate and entertaining one-person show, Gene Kelly:The Legacy.

With only a few boxes, chairs, and a large motion picture screen, Ward Kelly provides an intimate glimpse into their personal life as well as a multitude of clips from some of his best dancing, singing, and acting sequences. She begins by answering the often-asked question: How did you two meet?

They met in 1985 when she was working on a documentary that Kelly had been hired to narrate after Gregory Peck had declined in favor of To Kill a Mockingbird. They hit it off immediately through their shared love of words and word play. Kelly spoke several languages, was a great reader, and it seems that they were kindred spirits intellectually before the romance blossomed. She claims she didn't know who he was, as she was 26, a self-confessed Herman Melville scholar, and he was 73 years old. In a few months he asked her to write his memoir, and they were eventually married. Their ten years were filled with experiences Ward Kelly recounts with affection, as she was exposed to the world of culture and talent that broadened her experiences in Hollywood and abroad.

One of her goals is to instruct the audience in the breadth and scope of Kelly's talents. The clip reel shown at the beginning of the nearly three-hour show looks at many of clips he chose when he did a similar one-man show himself. For fans, they revisit some of his most famous sequences. For those new to his work, they represent a bit of Hollywood history as well as an introduction to his particularly unique style of dancing.

Of course Singin' in the Rain is featured prominently, but some more obscure sequences are shown. One, in particular, from Living in a Big Way, which was not one of his most successful movies, has Kelly on a construction site with a group of children, and his dancing on precarious ladders and timbers helps one to appreciate his inventiveness and precision.

Several sequences from The Pirate, one of Ward Kelly's personal favorites, exhibits his derring-do imitations of Douglas Fairbanks, some flamenco-style dancing, and an exuberance in the grand style of MGM musicals. She said that once MGM discovered his popularity, they were unwilling to loan him to other studios during his career.

Aside from dancing, Ward Kelly includes some wonderful solos done by her husband like "Long Ago and Far Away" and "You Wonderful You." It is her very measured delivery that educates and prevents the program from devolving into a overblown vanity piece.

Humor is definitely part of the delivery as well. When criticized for being a perfectionist and difficult, Kelly was puzzled. "Would you ask for a sloppy surgeon?" He left her notes around the house, and she claimed he was quite a romantic. When it was publicized that he had married her, he added a few years to her age so the disparity wouldn't seem so great.

Many of the clips include other greats of films. Judy Garland co-starred with him several times, and she leaned on him during her later, more difficult years. Their palpable chemistry in a scene in Summer Stock bring into focus one of the most charming moments among the film selections.

When asked, he claimed that Vera-Ellen was probably the best of the female dancers he worked with, but when pressed, Jerry the Mouse was his favorite partner.

Ward Kelly says that people often assume Fred Astaire was a role model, but she adds that after working with Gene, he modified some of his European-style ballroom work with features of Kelly's athleticism.

She also includes some of his directorial moments. From scenes within films like On the Town and An American in Paris, he also led Hello,Dolly, which was one of Barbra Streisand's early roles.  She includes a sequence of the parade scene, which had thousands of extras from circus performers to multitudes of bands and local civic groups. It includes Kelly's own voice as he directs. He also helmed serious work like Inherit the Wind and the comedy Guide to the Married Man starring Walter Matthau.

To recount much more of the presentation would take away some of the pleasure in hearing the stories and watching the films. It is a further testament to Ward Kelly that the three hours were over in the blink of an eye. Her choices and well expressed narrative makes one want to see it again to remember Gene Kelly's contribution to both film and television appearances in his lifetime.

After the show, she stays to talk with audience members in the lobby, and an hour later she is still patiently answering questions and giving his fans an up-close-and-personal experience not often delivered by speakers. She offers her personal information for those who have more questions, and she is willing to listen to people who want to share their own reminiscences about Kelly and his meaning in their lives. It is a most generous gift.

It is also instructive to add a post-script offering kudos to The La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts. Described by the Los Angeles Times as "one of the best Broadway-style houses in Southern California," they consistently produce an eclectic variety of productions, from one-person shows like this one, to a full-season of high quality comedies and dramas, to musical performances by noted performers, and recently, a cabaret series. They have a commitment to the community, and the theater is often the site of recitals and youth and children's programming,

Tom McCoy and Cathy Rigby made a proposal 42 years ago to the city council for a vision that would upgrade and deliver high quality work. It was accepted, and for some time the city subsidized the daunting effort of producing shows that can cost upwards of a million dollars to mount, and they delivered with ones that had a broad appeal across the region. Not located in Los Angeles proper or Hollywood where much work is produced, it is a testament to the quality and innovation that now allows the theater to be successful in its own right. At any given performance, there are patrons from La Mirada itself but also from as far away as San Diego and the Valley, who come to experience the fine production values and special nature of McCoy-Rigby's choices.

Over the years they have garnered multiple peer-judged Ovation Awards given by the LA Stage Alliance, and they have also earned many awards by the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle. Also notable are many by LA Weekly and the Garlands. The high quality talent they consistently feature, from acting, directing, lighting, sound, set design, and others ensure that the trip to the theater will be excellent value in time and investment.