For Shannon M. O’Bryan, who plays Kathy Selden in Singin’ in the Rain starting Monday at The Muny, her eighth appearance on the grand outdoor stage is like a homecoming.
"I love working here," she said. "It’s kind of like my summer home."
O’Bryan, a native of Louisville, KY now living in New York City, appeared in Show Boat last summer and has also performed in Muny productions of 42nd Street, Grease and Gypsy. While she has performed on Broadway, The Muny has a special allure.
"It’s so much fun, and such a unique summer experience," she said. "Everyone’s so kind to us here."
O’Bryan grew up a tomboy, but her mother insisted she take dance lessons. This ultimately led to a performing arts high school in Louisville, where she added singing to her repertoire before studying at Roosevelt University in Chicago. Performing was a natural direction to choose.
"I grew up watching old movie musicals," she said. "I obsessed over Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly and Ginger Rogers and Eleanor Powell. I grew up on that, and could probably quote every movie they ever made. So getting to do Singin’ in the Rain is really exciting for me, because it was kind of one of those that I watched every day. I loved it."
The show also stars Tony Yasbeck as Don Lockwood, the Gene Kelly role from the movie, plus Curtis Holbrook as Cosmo Brown and Michele Ragusa as Lina Lamont. O’Bryan said rehearsals are "going really well" even though it’s "a huge technical show." The technical part involves recreating a Hollywood film studio in 1927, when movies were transitioning from silent to "talkies." The talkie element is crucial to the plot, as O’Bryan’s newcomer Kathy Selden is called on to dub the voice for established star Lamont, who is beautiful and was successful in silent films but has a grating, whiny voice.
The show has "many dance numbers and a lot going on," O’Bryan said, and rehearsals are typically outdoors, regardless of the heat and humidity.
"I kind of prefer it," O’Bryan said of the sizzling St. Louis summer. "It keeps your body warm and your voice warm. But you have to keep hydrated. You really have to take care of yourself here."
Not only is The Muny like home to O’Bryan, so is Singin’ in the Rain.
"I studied Debbie Reynolds, and Jean Hagen," she said of the film’s two female leads. "It’s funny. Later on in life I found out that Debbie Reynolds was not Gene Kelly’s choice for this role. She was a singer, she was 18 years old, and Gene Kelly had to teach her how to dance, basically, for this film. And he was quite the taskmaster. But now, you can’t imagine the film without her. So it’s really exciting to get to play that role. And she was so wonderful and charming in it.
"You know, having to play these iconic roles is a bit intimidating," she said. "But you just kind of tip your hat to them when you can and you try and make it your own as much as possible. But there’s certainly a lot of Debbie Reynolds’ flavor in my performance, because it’s so a part of who I am too, you know?"
O’Bryan wishes she could have met Gene Kelly.
"He wasn’t just an amazing performer, and amazing on film, but he was an incredible director and choreographer," she said. "And he was a perfectionist, in the greatest sense of the word. The way he broke things down and created was pretty amazing, for his time especially."
Kelly, with his athletic dancing, was a "guy’s guy," O’Bryan said.
"That’s what’s so great about the guy we have playing Don Lockwood here. Tony Yasbeck dances just like Gene Kelly. He’s just really a strong, athletic dancer."
Plus, Yasbeck brings an added dimension.
"Gene Kelly wasn’t known for his voice, but Tony can sing like a dream too," O’Bryan said. "So it’s perfect for the stage."
O’Bryan has fond memories for her previous Muny roles. Playing Peggy Sawyer in 42nd Street was the first role she did as a professional, so reprising it at The Muny was a treat.
"It was a character that I really connected with, and it’s just my favorite character ever to play," she said. "She gets to tap dance like a demon, and that’s where I live and breathe. Getting to do that show on The Muny stage was really special. So that was a big standout moment for me."
Playing Sandy in Grease was "a big step," she said, because it involved a lot of lead singing.
"I was so used to playing only dance roles up until that point," she said. "Getting to play Sandy was like a huge challenge for me."
O’Bryan has a long background in dance, but started singing much later.
"To this day it’s really hard, and I think that’s kind of a dancer’s mentality," she said. "I feel like we can be our own worst enemy. I’m definitely a perfectionist, and I will work on every step until I think it’s as perfect as it can be. But as far as singing goes, it was always something I was like terrified of. It was like something that I steered away from, and I don’t think I worked on it for a while as much as I should’ve, because I was scared of it.
"But now, I really love it," she said. "Like in this show, I get opportunities to take on these little, sweet ballads. It’s so nice. I just feel this sense of accomplishment, from where I started, being able to play roles like this, and not only see myself as a dancer."
O’Bryan, who said cast members typically invest about 100 hours of rehearsal time per show, said The Muny’s sheer size brings out the best in performers.
"Being in front of those 12,000 people is definitely a motivator," she said. "You just feel kind of like a rock star, so it gives you this amazing confidence that you wouldn’t have in any other real situation. So it just makes the shows so much more magical."
O’Bryan plans on taking a break after this show and spending some time with her family before starting work on a White Christmas tour. Beyond that, her long-term goal is to start doing more film and television. But for now, O’Bryan is thrilled to be back at The Muny.
"It’s just so beautiful," she said. "I love doing shows out there. You have this gorgeous tree onstage with you. And you’re under the stars. It’s magical – I guess that’s the only word for it."
In spite of the the setting, she still gets a bit nervous before shows.
"I always have, and I always will," she said. "I don’t let it take over me, but I feel like some nerves are good for you. If you didn’t have nerves, then I feel like you weren’t really passionate about what you did. I feel like the nerves come from the perfectionist side of being a performer, because you want to be as good as you can be, and that can be a lot of pressure."
Even passionate perfectionists can get caught up in a little Muny magic.
"As a professional, you should really be focused on your role and what you have at hand," O’Bryan said. "But I’d be lying if I were to say that it doesn’t take my breath away. Especially that first night that I’m out on the stage every year – yeah, it definitely takes my breath away. Because you kind of forget what that many people looks like. So the first time you turn out front, it’s very moving. It gives you that little lift, and that extra little charge, and you feel like, ‘OK, here we go. We’re stepping into this.’"
Singin’ in the Rain runs at 8:15 p.m. Monday through Sunday, July 24. Tickets range from $10 to $68 and are available at The Muny box office, online at www.metrotix.com and by calling MetroTix at 314-534-1111.
There are also about 1,500 free seats available at the back of the theater on a first-come, first-served basis.
Getting there from Wentzville
Take Highway 40 east to the Hampton Avenue exit into Forest Park. Go right at the first roundabout. At the second roundabout, follow the signs to Muny parking.