For his Quad City Music Guild debut, Jeremy Littlejohn is directing what’s universally acknowledged to be the greatest movie musical of all time – “Singin’ in the Rain.”
Immortalized in the 1952 film (starring Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor), the stage version here at 1584 34th Ave., Moline., opens Friday night with John Whitson as Don Lockwood, Sophia Kilburg as Kathy Seldon, and Anthony Greer as Cosmo Brown.
Other main Guild cast include Wayne Hess as R.F. Simpson, Tom Naab as Roscoe Dexter, and Sydney Dexter as Lina Lamont.
In the classic story, “Singin’ in the Rain” has all the makings of a Tinseltown tabloid headline — the starlet, the leading man and a love affair that could change lives and make or break careers.
In the era of silent movies, Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont are a hot item, but behind the scenes, things aren’t always as they appear on the big screen. Meanwhile, Lina’s squeaky voice might be the end of her career in “talking pictures” without the help of a talented young actress to do the talking and singing for her.
“We’ve got a great staff; it was a blessing for my first time here,” Littlejohn said Tuesday. “I came in not really knowing anything. I’ve never seen a show here.”
His full-time job is production manager at Circa ’21 Dinner Playhouse and he has decades of experience acting and directing across the country. Littlejohn was in a “Singin’ in the Rain” in Indiana about 20 years ago, and the last time Guild did the show was the late ‘80s.
Among Littlejohn’s staff are Karen Brooks as assistant director, Ariane Call as music director, Kiera Lynn Martin as choreographer and John Weigandt as lighting designer.
Anthony Greer, 31, plays Cosmo, and Sophia Kilburg, 22, plays Kathy. She just graduated from University of Iowa was a double major in theater and English.
This past year, she was in UI’s productions of “The Children’s Hour” and the musical “Something Rotten.” Kilburg played a lead role of Katherine in Countryside’s 2021 production of “Newsies.”
A graduate of Davenport Central, she was in Music Guild’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” five years ago.
Greer (a United Township English teacher and theater director) is a Guild veteran, starting with “Drowsy Chaperone” in 2011. He continued pretty mush every summer, including “Cabaret,” “Hello, Dolly,” “Les Miserables,” “Oklahoma,” and “Cats.”
Anthony met his wife Sydney doing a production of “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” in 2016. They have two children, ages 4 and 1.
Reuniting with Whitson
He was Chino in “West Side Story” (2017), when Whitson played Tony, and Greer’s last Guild stage role was “42nd Street” in 2019.
Greer first met Whitson in 2016 and said he’s great to work with. “It’s nice exploring that relationship between Cosmo and Don. It was nice knowing him beforehand and having interacted with him, rather than meeting someone brand new,” Greer said.
“It was funny because I kept getting cast as the dance ensemble, the dance feature,” he said, noting he doesn’t have dance training. “I don’t know why. Those were ones I started to become attracted to. Now that I have a family and my career isn’t in theater, I’m very selective the shows I audition for.”
Cosmo in “Singin’ in the Rain” is a notable dance role, famously played by Donald O’Connor in the film. Kilburg has been a dancer all her life, studying at Belle Academy in Davenport.
“For me, it wasn’t intimidating,” Littlejohn said of the show. “Because I’ve been in it, I knew what it was. It’s got a lot of moving pieces. Even just having to film things for the silent movie scenes. I was excited to work on it, more than intimidated.
“It hasn’t been without its stresses, when you have monster like this with a lot. of moving pieces,” he said.
“I’ve loved the movie for a long time,” Kilburg said. “It’s definitely about finding a balance – as a group we’ve done, and individually. We don’t want to copy anything, but finding the essential qualities.”
Sunny and spunky
Debbie Reynolds as Kathy was so spunky and optimistic and Kilburg tries to bring those qualities on stage, “in a way that feels honest to me,” she said.
Greer said Littlejohn saw something in him that he didn’t – as the comic relief and dancer.
“It’s always been, you are the cowboy or you are a cat,” Greer said. “Not only do you have to dance, which I knew would be fine…but also putting the character of just goofy, over-the-top, yet supportive, always wanting the best for all his friends. It’s been really interesting, trying to find that within myself.”
At UT, he told his students he was surprised he got the role, but they weren’t.
“They see me as a teacher, as being over the top and over dramatic, to draw things out of them,” Greer said. “Being a teacher and being around kids, helping them learn the craft, has helped in this role.”
And being a teacher in a way is an acting role itself (performing in front of a group), he noted.
“I’ve been casting for a long time,” Littlejohn said. “I know all the types, I know all the characters.”
Becoming Cosmo “became very natural” for Greer, he said. “When he walked out, I said, ‘That’s Cosmo.’ That is, in my mind, the mark of good casting, where you find he already shares some of the characteristics of the character. Sophia’s a great example of that as well.”
“She’s naturally funny,” Littlejohn said, noting Debbie Reynolds once said: “The hardest things I’ve done in life are childbirth and ‘Singin’ in the Rain’.”
“Kathy and I feel both feel a little guarded,” Kilburg said. “Something I really love about Kathy is, she’s at her best when she’s with people she loves.”
The song “Good Morning” really reflects her happiness, confidence, and creativity, she said. “That’s something that really resonates with me. I feel my best when I’m making art with people I love.”
Greer enjoys the highly-driven creativity of Cosmo.
“He’s never satisfied with what he’s done – not because it’s bad, but he’s always trying to one-up himself,” he said. “I really resonate with that, because even if I hadn’t seen that humorous aspect, it’s ‘All right, we did this awesome thing. What are we gonna do next or how are we gonna make it better?’”
The white life-size “doll” that Cosmo dances with has creepy, life-like hands, that he flirts with. It’s nicknamed “Eugenia,” also over the top, Greer said. “Trying to fall off a couch with it and fight with it is a fun challenge. I’ve never had to fight with a life-size doll before,” he said.
Is there water in this ‘Rain’?
Like most stage versions of the classic musical, real water does not fall on the Moline stage, but is simulated with video projections, lighting and sound, Littlejohn said.
“We decided pretty early on, because we had to do that silent filming, and because it’s a monster of a show,” that the rainfall would be on film, the director said. Whitson still re-creates the iconic raining street scene with an umbrella and lamppost.
“There’s nothing like real water. The production I was in had real water,” Littlejohn said. “It’s problematic, so as soon as they brought up the idea of projections, yes, let’s experiment with that.”
Water on stage “makes a mess and it takes the entirety of intermission to wipe it up,” he said. “Our lighting designer is doing fun things where it looks like raindrops are hitting the stage and things like that. It’s working really well and again, the peace of mind that comes with – we’re not destroying our stage.”
After “Singin’,” Kilburg will be choreographing “Chicago” in July for Double Threat Studios and acting in “Everybody” at Riverside Theatre in Iowa City (July 21-Aug. 6).
Littlejohn is also juggling his own stage role during the Music Guild run, starring at Circa ’21 as the title character in “Garfield: The Musical With Cattitude.” That runs on scheduled Tuesday through Saturday mornings and afternoons through June 24.
“It works well. ‘Garfield’ rehearses during the day and gets done at 5,” Littlejohn said, noting they started rehearsing about two weeks ago and the performances don’t overlap time-wis with Guild. “Singin’ in the Rain” began practicing evenings in mid-April.
“Singin'” performances are June 9-11 and 15-18, at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for kids 12 and under, available by calling 309-762-6610 or by visiting the QCMG website HERE.