Singin’ in the rainmaker

GREENVILLE — Until now, the students in Anita Sleeman’s fine arts class at St. Joseph’s Catholic School had completed several “dry runs” of their spring production of “Singin’ in the Rain.”

But on this March afternoon, one of them would end up literally soaking wet.

Ben Novotny, a senior at St. Joseph’s, plays Don Lockwood, the lead character portrayed by Gene Kelley in the original film version released more than 50 years ago. In arguably the most memorable scene in the movie, Kelley sings the title song while walking — and ultimately dancing — outside in a downpour.

Sleeman, who chairs the school’s fine arts department, selected the musical for this year’s production, complete with a real downpour inside the school’s small chapel that also serves as its theater. She enlisted senior Zachary Beck to help pull it off.

“Mrs. Sleeman said ‘It’s going to rain,’ and I said, ‘O.K.’” Beck said.

The 17-year-old Beck has been at St. Joseph’s since eighth grade and has designed and built stage sets for the past four school productions, including “West Side Story” and “Little Shop of Horrors,” for which he built dancing robots.

But making it rain on a stage indoors without soaking the audience presented a unique challenge.

“I picked this play because three or four years ago we incorporated science into the arts with the robots in ‘Little Shop,’ and we decided we’d do it one more time to get people interested in theater from a totally technical perspective,” Sleeman said.

She applied for several grants to help pay for the project, landing one worth $1,000 through the Metropolitan Arts Council.

Sleeman’s husband, Brian, used his background in engineering to help guide Beck through the design and construction of the indoor rainmaker.

Money from the grant was used to buy a 305-gallon tank to hold the water used in producing the rain, along with a 3.5 horsepower pump.

The pump produces enough pressure to push the water from the tank located outside the chapel to the top of the set on stage, where it is fed to a grid intertwined with spray nozzles directed toward the set floor.

The street where Novotny sings and dances is gently slopped toward the front of the set to allow the water to feed into a gutter system below the floor, Beck said. The water is then piped back into the tank outside the building.

“We worked on that part of it for a solid month,” Beck said. “It’s a completely closed system.”

All of the wiring for the lighting used on the set is waterproof, including the microphone Novotny uses for the singing part of the performance.

“People are a little surprised to see a high school tackling this,” Sleeman said. In most productions of the famous dance, lights are used to simulate the rain, she explained.

“That’s not as much fun,” she added.

Beck, a parishioner at Prince of Peace parish who plans to attend Penn State University’s School of Design and Production this fall, said the rainmaking project has been his most challenging.

“Everything I’ve learned over the past four years, and more, has been put into this one project,” he said.

So, how did the first dance in the rain go?

“It felt good,” a soaked Novotny said a few minutes after his brief test run. “It’s a lot of fun, and I’m excited about doing it.”

“Singin’ in the Rain” will be performed at St. Joseph’s Catholic School at 7 p.m. March 29-31 and at 3 p.m. April 1.

For more information visit Saint Joseph’s Catholic School.