Gene Kelly: A Legacy: Theater Review

Don Flood
Patricia Ward Kelly
Trenchant as well as endearingly entertaining, Gene Kelly’s widow and biographer mixes carefully curated film and audio clips with illuminating personal memories and thoughtful commentary.

The widow of the legendary dancing star recounts his life on a Pasadena stage.

There have been so many excellent movie musicals, though perhaps fewer than 20 indisputable masterpieces. Gene Kelly starred in three of them: Vincente Minnelli’s The Pirate, his own Singin’ in the Rain with Stanley Donen and Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort. (To be fair, Maurice Chevalier and Fred Astaire can share that distinction.)

Returning to the Pasadena Playhouse after a successful midwinter run, Patricia Ward Kelly brings her generous program on the groundbreaking and enduring work of her late husband, Gene Kelly, the greatest innovator of choreography for the camera in the movie musical, as well as one of Hollywood's two preeminent dancing stars. Patricia holds the stage at this point in her life as a seasoned pro, standing with considerable poise in a demanding presentation while sharing her memories and insights about Gene’s personality, artistic commitment and their personal relationship.


Often mistaken for a dancer herself, Patricia confides that she was originally an unregenerate academic, a specialist in Melville’s short fiction and a sometime journalist who met Gene in Washington, D.C. in 1985 while she was writing a Smithsonian documentary. Four decades his junior, she had no idea who he was, and after passing muster with some intellectual testing, she eventually began collaborating with him on his autobiography, which remains unfinished. They married in 1990.

It’s easy to make an impressive montage of signature Kelly moments, but the opening clip show thankfully gives each excerpt its full due and is edited with greater than customary sensitivity to the internal logic of the sequences. Indeed, Patricia has selected the components of her show with a deep sense of construction, layering and balancing the many facets of Gene’s talents and inspirations with an attentive care of which he would likely have approved, notwithstanding his perfectionism. She can be candid about his modesty (especially about his Irish tenor), and she conveys just enough of a taste of the man himself to extend a suggestion of intimacy, while maintaining a gracious reserve.

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The focus in the extended excerpts stays almost entirely on the seven years between his breakthrough on loan-out from an apparently clueless MGM for Columbia’s Cover Girl (1944) through the Oscar-winning An American in Paris (1951), concentrating on the theme of Gene’s struggle to bring distinctively American dance idioms (far beyond the image of mere tap) to film musicals with choreography designed specially for the camera and, more particularly, as an integral contribution to the advancement of emotion and theme, rather than as interludes to conventional comedy hijinks. It is why his routines are best seen not just entire, but in the context of the feature films of which they were the animating force. I especially respected her inclusion of his work in Gregory LaCava’s Living in a Big Way (1947), a neglected, somewhat failed, film in which his contribution was emblematic of his resourceful creativity and how she has artfully avoided the overly familiar in favor of examples that illustrate the depth of Kelly’s invention.

While this is a long show for one of its type, it never feels labored or poky, nor does it rush the pace. So it is unfair to carp about so much that goes unaddressed regarding this protean genius, athlete and aesthete: his skills as a straight actor, his political and social engagement, a deeper investigation into his contributions as a working director as well as a choreographer, his collaborations with Donen, how his debut part opposite Judy Garland in Busby Berkeley’s For Me and My Gal (1942) represented a diluted version of his Broadway hit as Pal Joey. And in this particular day and age, his pioneering popular examination of dance and masculinity from his 1958 Omnibus television special Dancing: A Man’s Game (recently revived on DVD) would have been eye-openingly relevant.

Venue: The Pasadena Playhouse, Pasadena (April 18 & 19)

Writer-performer: Patricia Ward Kelly