Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Review: Falling For Make Believe, a Romance of Music and Story and Words

L-R: Brett Ryback and Ben D. Goldberg as Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart
Photos by Michael Lamont

Before there was Rodgers & Hammerstein there was Rodgers & Hart. The former duo created beloved musicals like Oklahoma, Carousel, and South Pacific, but the latter’s body of work resulted in an enduring catalogue of hit songs like “My Funny Valentine,” “Where or When,” “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” “Falling in Love With Love,” and “My Romance.” Recorded by Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and a legion of other artists, they remain as popular today as ever.

Lorenz Hart’s life was the source of many a heartbreaking lyric that would become the perfect companion to a beautiful Richard Rodgers melody. It was a brilliant partnership that was also responsible for musical comedies like Pal Joey, On Your Toes, Babes in Arms, and The Boys From Syracuse (the first Shakespeare play to be adapted as a musical). And yet, behind the public persona was a relationship that was strained and difficult. Hart’s alcoholism was a big factor.

We know little about the actual events of Hart’s life, but as a gay man who frequented the speakeasies, he enjoyed the company of attractive young men, partied all night, and would often disappear on binges for days at a time. After Prohibition ended, the moral cleanup barred homosexuals from being able to meet publicly in bars so a kind of social prohibition took place as well, forcing them underground and into the closet. It was especially hard on Hart. Alcohol continued to be the tonic for his pain, and would eventually lead to his early death at the age of 48.

Brett Ryback, Rebecca Ann Johnson and Ben D. Goldberg.

Bookwriter Mark Saltzman explores it all in Falling For Make Believe, his world premiere bio-musical now playing at the Colony Theatre. The bulk of the story follows Hart’s personal challenges, but it also takes a look at his working relationship with prolific composer Richard Rodgers. Brett Ryback and Ben D. Goldberg take on the roles of the serious Rodgers and often irresponsible Hart, respectively. It’s narrated by Fletcher Mecklin (Tyler Milliron), a fictional character who could have been any one of Hart’s lovers over the years, though Saltzman presents him as one whom Hart might really have been in love with. And it is through his eyes that we see the series of missed opportunities that became so much a part of Hart’s troubled life.

Hart’s great sadness is that he saw himself as ugly and unlovable, so he pushes Fletcher away before their brief fling can grow into a real romance. In many ways it signifies what must have been a revolving door of non-relationships begging for a chance to survive a single night and the loneliness left in their wake. It’s no surprise then that he poured his love into his lyrics – at times clever, sophisticated and catchy, at others hauntingly poignant and filled with irony.

Tyler Milliron and Ben D. Goldberg

As a young, naïve actor fresh off the bus, Fletcher, a Pennsylvania Dutch farm boy, relates how he first met Larry during his audition for A Connecticut Yankee. He doesn’t get the job but thanks to a series of fortuitous events, does land a place in the chorus of one of Rodgers & Hart’s touring productions. More importantly, he makes an impression on Hart. Several shows, but not any fame later, he crosses paths with Hart again after police raids of the local bars land them both in jail, and eventually, after a third chance meeting, Hart finally invites him to his apartment.

Saltzman has written scenes like these with a gentle touch that never veers into the realm of melodrama, instead revealing Hart’s longing for connection, however fleeting in a world he cannot dare to feel he deserves. Shared credit for the delicate balance between humor and charm also goes to director Jim Fall for keeping the moments between his trio of leading men real. The best ones play out simply in the looks exchanged among the characters between the words, as well as the looks that only the audience can see. Watch Goldberg’s eyes follow Milliron with longing or Ryback quietly figuring out the fine line between coaxing and chastising needed to keep Hart on track while writing a new lyric. The hidden beauty of this piece lies in its subtlety and thankfully its leading men are a capable lot.

It’s impossible not to fall in love with Milliron’s silky tenor voice, which sounds perfectly at home in this style of music. Goldberg, too, has a way with a song that I can only describe as singing with his eyes. “You Are Too Beautiful” is his best in the show, and after a series of more active scenes, offers a well-earned moment of heartbreaking introspection.

The Rodgers & Hart magic also explodes onstage in Rebecca Ann Johnson’s character, Vivian Ross, based on actress Vivienne Segal (the original Vera Simpson in Pal Joey.) Johnson’s got the look, the presence, the timing…and boy, she’s got the pipes. It doesn’t hurt that costume designer Dianne K. Graebner has outfitted her in some stunning period pieces that show off her uncanny pinup girl resemblance – red lips, swinging hips and enough film noir glamour to knock a light bulb out of its socket.

She belts out numbers like “Johnny One Note” with conviction and owns the stage as Hart’s female foil, comedy and all. Yet it is her version of “Blue Moon” sung while slowly walking the perimeter of the stage moving through five pools of light and their connecting shadows that, for me, is her most memorable of the night. Sohail e. Najafi creates the effect beautifully with his terrific lighting design on Jeff McLaughlin’s sleek art deco set.

In a show this rich with well-known music, it falls on the musical director to meet the audience’s expectations of the songs they love and Keith Harrison easily delivers the classic sound of the 1930s and 40s with only four musicians and six singers. Choreographer Lisa Hopkins also provides some interesting musical staging but the show’s only real dancing takes place in the finale.

This 95-minute gem of a new musical contains some of the best music ever written showcased by the surprising story of the man who wrote the lyrics. It’s a compassionate tale simply wrought that doesn’t over-sentimentalize its subject but offers a thoughtful look at the price of genius and one poet of Broadway’s gift of words. 

"Falling in love with love is falling for make believe.
Falling in love with love is playing the fool;
Caring too much is such a juvenile fancy.
Learning to trust is just for children in school.

I fell in love with love one night when the moon was full
I was unwise with eyes unable to see.
I fell in love with love, With love everlasting,
But love fell out with me."  
                            .....Rodgers and Hart

FALLING FOR MAKE BELIEVE

April 27 – May 19, 2013
The Colony Theatre
555 North Third Street (at Cypress)
Burbank, CA 91502
Tickets: (818) 558-7000
 www.colonytheatre.org

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