Some potential theatergoers might be misled into thinking that Falling For Make Believe is just another musical revue. The title sounds glossy, with a slight danger of veering into gassy. The fact that the show’s score (including the title phrase itself) is taken from the Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart songbook might re-inforce this mistaken impression that it’s simply a tour through their greatest hits.
Think again. Falling for Make Believe rejects “falling for” the usual “make believe” that has permeated such previous dramatizations of the life of lyricist Hart as the 1948 Hollywood movie Words and Music. Mark Saltzman’s new musical at the Colony is much more than a revue, masterfully capturing not only the wit and melancholy of Hart’s lyrics but also the angst of his closeted, alcoholic adult years.
The production arrives in LA in the wake of End of the Rainbow, which depicted Judy Garland’s final months in similarly unblinking terms (she, too was somewhat inaccurately depicted in Words and Music). But there are some major differences between the two — Falling in Love With Make Believe covers a much longer period of time, from 1927 to 1943, in even less stage time than is allotted for End of the Rainbow, and of course the focus of our attention is on a lyricist, not a performer.
As someone who frequently feels that biographical shows collapse too much real time into not enough stage time, I was a little leery when I heard that Saltzman’s show is a 95-minute no-intermission wonder that also spends some of its time introducing us to its fictional narrator, Fletcher Mecklin.
Fletcher is depicted as a struggling actor who auditioned for Rodgers and Hart, got jobs in their touring companies before the Depression, but then had to rely on selling sheet music at Gimbel’s after the crash. Later, in Hart’s declining years, Saltzman throws Fletcher into the same holding cell as Hart, after a police roundup of gay men in bars. And finally Fletcher and Hart have at least a one-night fling, followed by Hart sending Fletcher a cigarette case as a token of what appears to be real affection.
In a program note, Saltzman points out that “the particulars of most love affairs of gay celebrities in the pre-Stonewall era were scrupulously eradicated from the record, often by families who literally burned love letters and journals.” So the lack of such records, in a sense, has liberated Saltzman to imagine what a surreptitious fling with Hart might have been like, and he succeeds in making the fictional Hart-Mecklin relationship plausible, even convincing.
True, Saltzman’s indulging in a variety of “make believe” himself, but it’s the kind of “make believe” that is created in the service of a fuller truth, in contrast to the total erasure of Hart’s homosexuality in Words and Music.
Fletcher is also a good choice as narrator, as someone who wasn’t in the thick of the story but certainly is interested in what was going on, due to his own experiences with the same closet that obscured our view of Hart. His thoughts are structured within the framework of his attendance at Hart’s memorial service, in 1943.
But the show isn’t entirely about Fletcher and Hart and their mutual closet. It’s also a portrait of the often strained relationship between the younger, heterosexual, sober Rodgers and the older, shorter, often inebriated Hart. We get glimpses of how they must have worked together, as well as how they sometimes failed to work together because of Hart’s alcoholic ways.
Whatever the stresses in the partnership, the two men produced a stream of songs that seems indestructible. Perhaps realizing this, Saltzman hasn’t been afraid to bend some of the songs into unexpected or shorter versions for his own dramatic purposes. He lets “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” appear at several key moments of the narrative — the title is a fairly apt indication of Hart’s feelings throughout much of the play. “My Funny Valentine” is sung by two characters who are fond of Hart in very different ways.
As mentioned above, this is a play about a lyricist and secondarily, his composing partner — it’s not about a performer. I don’t know how frequently Hart and Rodgers performed their own songs or how they sounded, but the actors who play these roles in Jim Fall’s staging (musical direction by Keith Harrison) sing well enough to suggest that Rodgers and Hart might have confidently performed in public — without ever entertaining the notion that they might have been the stars of their own shows.
Each of these actors also brings something to his part that draws him closer to the character. Ben D. Goldberg isn’t as short as Hart apparently was, but he’s short, and he bears a passing resemblance to his character. Brett Ryback, as Rodgers, has the advantage of being able to play the piano in certain scenes, and the fact that he has composed his own musicals surely hasn’t hurt his ability to glimpse into the soul of the great composer.he’s portraying. More important, Goldberg and Ryback inhabit their characters’ opposite temperaments with absolute precision.
Fittingly, the actors playing the fictional performers are allowed to showcase their voices to a greater extent. As Fletcher, Tyler Milliron has a substantial tenor (he was recently heard singing opera in International City Theatre’s Master Class), but he knows how to sing a show tune as well as an aria, and as an actor, he’s a congenial audience guide. Rebecca Ann Johnson plays Vivian Ross, who apparently is meant to suggest Vivienne Segal, the female lead in the Rodgers and Hart musical Pal Joey. Here Johnson’s Vivian serves as Hart’s devoted gal pal as well as a singer with sizzling stage presence.
Jeffrey Landman plays Hart’s somewhat slimy agent and enabler, while Megan Moran plays a variety of disparate women’s roles.
I wish Saltzman might have found a few moments to observe the Rodgers and Hart years in Hollywood and, according to what I’ve read, the fact that Hart maintained his primary home in New York with his mother until 1938. Nevertheless, I understand that it’s tempting to keep adding more and more to a biographical drama until it becomes bloated. Frequently the excess gets cleared away in subsequent productions, after the premiere, but the premiere at the Colony already appears streamlined enough to consider expansions to more and bigger theaters — perhaps even a few in LA.
Falling For Make Believe is at least on the level of Louie & Keely, which later expanded from its Sacred Fools origins to the Geffen, winning multiple awards along the way. Saltzman’s musical deserves second and third and tenth productions.
**All Falling for Make Believe production photos by Michael Lamont. For an interview with Saltzman and Ryback, go here.
Falling For Make Believe, Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third St., Burbank. Thu-Fri 8 pm, Sat 3 and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm, through May 19. www.colonytheatre.org. 818-558-7000.
Turmoil in the streets! No, not now, but slightly more than 20 years ago.
Two productions that close next Saturday depict different arenas for this turmoil in diametrically opposite ways. Both are worthwhile.
At Open Fist Theatre, Caryl Churchill’s elaborate Mad Forest analyzes the effect of the Romanian Revolution of 1989, in which the Communist tyrant Nicolae Ceausescu was not only overthrown but executed. It’s a panoramic production, with 20 actors playing 36 roles (not including Ceausescu).
The focus of parts one and three is on two families of different economic classes. The wealthier parents are somewhat caught up, on a low level, in the calcified establishment, but their lower-class counterparts are in more desperate straits. In both families, the grown or nearly-grown children are itching for various forms of rebellion. The two families’ stories are united by a proposed marriage.
Meanwhile, the society around them is crumbling, as witnessed by a parade of comments in part two, based on interviews that Churchill and company conducted in Romania the year after the revolution. This is the least effective part of the play.
As with most revolutions, the aftermath of the Romanian upheaval, as depicted by Churchill, is littered with disillusionment and disappointment (see my recent comments on how this theme is Americanized and addressed in American Misfit at the Boston Court).
Marya Mazor’s staging and Richard Hoover’s set design bring admirable clarity and passion to a somewhat cluttered but fascinating play. The text is so sprawling that if you have any interest in the subject at all, you should take immediate advantage of Open Fist’s version while it’s still up, because the play is too ambitious for most 99-seat companies — and it would be too expensive for most larger companies.
The last LA production of Mad Forest I recall was at the Matrix Theatre, directed by Stephanie Shroyer in 1996. It divided the audience into facing halves and then surrounded us with the action in every corner of the room, which, as I recall, was somewhat more involving than the current prosecenium-configured production but also somewhat more confusing.
A few years after Romania erupted, so did LA, in the literally riotous reaction to the initial verdicts in the trials of the police officers who beat Rodney King. Last year, King himself died.
Stellar solo artist Roger Guenveur Smith has come forward with his Rodney King, at the Bootleg Theater. It’s a miniature, far from the scope of Mad Forest — one actor on stage, spending most of his time as either King (or is he an artist commenting on King?), primarily through spoken word and movement and sound, with a running time of less than an hour. But it isn’t so solipsistic or truncated that it ignores some of the other victims of racial strife during that era. It samples the stories of Reginald Denny and Latasha Harlins, among others.
As in Mad Forest, I left the theater with a somber sense of the pesky inability of people to “get along,” to quote King, and of his own inner demons that tormented him until the day he drowned (apparently accidentally, but after drinking). The script apparently changes somewhat from one performance to another, so it’s probably best not to cite many specific details, but Smith has a captivating stage presence that makes any of his performances worth checking out.
Mad Forest, Open Fist Theatre, 6209 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Fri-Sat 8 pm. Closes Sat. www.openfist.org.
Rodney King, Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., LA. Thu-Sat 8 pm, Sun 3 pm. Closes Sun. www.bootlegtheater.org.