He's just morphed from Peter Allen to Gene Kelly, but Todd McKenney is happy to have found a comfort zone, writes BRETT THOMAS.

David Atkins and his co-producer James Cundall were looking intently at the rain belting down hard outside the ballroom at Sydney's Star City casino.
    Atkins' guests, although sheltering under big, bright yellow umbrellas, were still getting a drenching as they made their way inside so the man responsible for the Olympic Games Opening and Closing ceremonies casually suggested that the downpour be turned down, maybe just a notch or two.
    And so it was.
    Of course, Atkins doesn't have a direct line to you-know-who.  Well, not yet, anyway.  The "rain", falling courtesy of some heavy duty sprinklers atop the ballroom's roof, was a stunt, set up for the launch of his latest venture, a stage reprise of the much-loved Hollywood musical Singin' in the Rain.
    Inside, it was left to Bill "Mr Movies" Collins to provide some quaint personal anecdotes about the 1952 film -- he's met all three stars, Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor, you know -- before Atkins and Cundall, director of arts and entertainment at IMG, delivered well-rehearsed speeches.
    Then, with a flourish, a scrim fell away on stage, the famous title music was cued and into the spotlight stepped the three Australian stars, yellow macs aglow and umbrellas atwirlin'.
    There was Rachael Beck, tiny and blonde in the Reynolds role, Wayne Scott Kermond, who bears more than a passing resemblance to O'Connor, and the undisputed star of the show Todd McKenney, who is stepping into the substantial dancing shoes of Gene Kelly.
    For McKenney, 34, the role came about just when he was considering some serious downtime.  After 766 performances over two years as the flamboyant Peter Allen in the hit Australian musical The Boy from Oz, McKenney was wary about hitting the road for another extended tour and was looking to concentrate on the beginnings of a solo career.
    "I didn't want to do another musical for a while," he revealed.  "When I stopped doing Boy I wanted to have a rest.  I wanted to concentrate on my own cabaret show and a Christmas concert with the Australian Pops Orchestra."
    Then came the call from Atkins, the man who makes things happen.
    "This was the only musical that could have changed my way of thinking," McKenney said.  "I think David's been wanting to do it for a long time and people have always compared my style of work to Gene Kelly's.  It's the same laid-back style.  I was probably the natural choice, apart from David himself.
    "In Dancin' Man (Atkins' 1987 stage show, which featured McKenney) there was a whole stack of stuff from Singin' in the Rain.  People have been telling me about this new show for about six months but it was only a month ago that David rang me and asked me to come and read with some different people.  It's all happened really quickly."
    Singin' in the Rain has long been Atkins' professional obsession and he was surprised that it had never been performed in Australia, despite having been written for the stage in the 1980s.
    "Singin' in the Rain is a very important musical for me," he said.  "It was the inspiration for me to take up dancing and the catalyst for Dancin' Man, so it's come come full circle."
    In hiring McKenney, Beck and Kermond, Atkins said he had secured the best cast out of any of the productions now playing in America.
    "It was really difficult to find people who are 'triple threats' -- those who can sing, act and dance really well," he said.  "These will be the best performances of these three leads on stage that have ever been seen."
    And it's a cast that is already pretty well acquainted.  McKenney used to teach Beck dance in the mid-1980s at the Ross Coleman Dance Studio, which used to be in Castlereagh Street.  And he worked with Kermond in the 1994 production of West Side Story.
    "I was the leader of the Jets and he was one of my crew," McKenney said.
    But for McKenney, in particular -- who gets to do that famous "rain dance" scene (remember the lamp posts and umbrellas?) -- the pressure will be high.  He became, with Anthony Warlow, Australia pre-eminent musical theatre star thanks to the success of The Boy from Oz.  If anyone is asked to carry the show, it will be him.
    Luckily for Atkins, IMG and the audience, McKenney has both the talent and the pedigree to carry it off.
    Born into a show biz family (his mother taught ballet, his grandmother ran a dance school, his grandfather taught gym), McKenney started dancing at the age of three at his mother's school in Perth.  He danced throughout his school years, representing his state and finally Australia in ballroom dancing but became a travel agent in case he was "no good" as a dancer.
    Then, in 1983, his life changed in the most cliched show business way.  Accompanying a friend to an audition for Song and Dance, McKenney had a go himself and was offered the part.  He's never looked back, with roles since in Pirates of Penzance, Camelot, La Cage Aux Folles, Dancin' Man, CATS, 42nd Street, West Side Story, Crazy for You and, of course, The Boy from Oz, to name a few.
    Now it's Singin' in teh Rain, although McKenney's involvement may be somewhat limited, given his commitement to the much-touted Broadway opening of The Boy from Oz, which looks set to happen in late 2001.
    Already he is well prepared for Singin' in the Rain, having seen the movie "about 40 times".
    "Singin' in the Rain is something you're brought up with," he said.
    His commitment to research is completely thorough.  During pre-production and rehearsals for Boy, he played Allen music and videos all day so he could take in subliminally as much as possible.  He expects to see Singin' in the Rain movie a few more times yet.
    "I think it's how you should prepare for any role," he said.  "You have to understand the period in which the story was set (Singin' is sent in 1927 Hollywood when 'talkies' were the new sensation of the movie business) and I'll spend time with a diction coach and a vocal coach to get the voice and the accent right.  This kind of role is nicely in my comfort zone, it's the way I like to work.  Boy was a much bigger stretch acting-wise."
    Physically, however, it's a different story altogether.
    "It takes a certain amount of show biz stamina, I suppose," McKenney said of the new show's proposed lengthy tour.
    "This will be my 15th long-running musical so I know how to handle it now.
    "One of the important things is to fill your day with stuff removed from show biz, so you're refreshed at night.
    "I think this is going to be much harder, physically, for me.  I jumped around a lot in Boy but I didn't dance the way I was trained to dance.  I'll probably have to go back into dance lessons for this.
    "It's going to be raining on stage," McKenney added, giving away one of the show's secrets, "so I'm really looking forward to seeing how they do that.
    "When David asked me to do it, I said, 'There's going to be real water, isn't there?' and he said, 'You can't do it any other way.'  So I'll probably spend all next year with a cold!"


(Left) Todd McKenney, Rachael Beck and Wayne Scott Kermond and (right) the original cast of the film.