Review: WTF's 'Romance' Is Confusing But Promising
What an intriguing, promising opening!
Underscored by a lively overture, we see a black and white movie clip of a young couple speaking intensely and kissing even more intensely. Then the man is shot and falls to the floor. Watching this film-noir parody with us is an older man looking up at the screen in his art-deco-esque, sunken screening room. We haven't a clue what's going on and for the next two hours or so, we have to work hard, too hard, to figure it all out.
"A Legendary Romance" jumps back and forth between the screening room in 1994 and other Hollywood settings in the early 1950s. We hear some terrific songs and see maybe a dozen glamorous women's dress-shoe outfits worn by the leading lady. We see more film clips, including one where the older man and the filmed actors talk to each other. This seems to be a frivolous love story, the "romance" of the title, but it gradually becomes also a serious story as well about the horrific toll the House Un-american Activities Committee-McCarthy hearings had on Hollywood. Sometimes we laugh. Sometimes we are pondering very serious subjects and emotions. Sometimes we're not sure what to feel.
And that is the problem with this new, not-yet-fully-realized, small-scale musical playing through Aug. 20 at the Main Stage of the Williamstown Theatre Festival: It's very confusing. The story itself is trying to cover too much ground. As with an opera, it's best to read a story synopsis before you attend. Hopefully this one will help:
Joseph Lindy (Jeff McCarthy, the "Man Of La Mancha" at Barrington Stage in 2015) is being coerced to agree to a new version of his autobiographical movie by young producer (Maurice Jones). As he tries to make a decision, Lindy revisits his love for his ingénue and leading lady, Billie Hathaway (Lora Lee Gayer). In flashback we learn that Lindy has been black-listed by McCarthy. In order to get the movie made, he decides that the producer credit will go to a man whom he fictitiously names Vincent Connor (Roe Hartrampf).
Connor then casts himself as the film’s leading man. Soon Vincent and Billie are lovers. Billie has spurned Lindy's proposal because she is afraid that as his wife she too will be blacklisted. (Still with me?) "A Legendary Romance" ends with Lindy deeply regretting a major decision he has made in his principled life.
Much in "A Legendary Romance" hinges on how we relate to Lindy. Do we believe in him, care about him, trust him? It doesn't help that he stays in his late 60s, even in flashbacks, while Billie stays in her youthful 20s. His proposal to her on bended knee is particularly jarring – a grandfather proposing to his granddaughter. (Will he be able to get up?) Only in the second act when a show that began as a mild-comedy turns very serious do we begin to feel for him.
Jeff McCarthy as Lindy has a gorgeous voice, but his acting chops don’t quite measure up, especially in Act I. In Act II he is quite moving. Maurice Jones is effective as the producer. But Lora Lee Gayer has the standout performance. She brings needed energy, fun, spunk and a soupçon of Sarah Jessica Parker to the production and to Billie. Roe Hartrampf looks the part of a young 50s actor, but he could have shown more strength in his characterization.
Timothy Prager wrote the overly ambitious book. Geoff Morrow created both the music and lyrics for the songs. Particularly good are "I Don’t Believe It," "You Didn’t Call, You Didn't Write" and "The Things I Never Said." The music, including the scenic underscoring, is the best thing about "A Legendary Romance." Charlie Rosen is the obviously strong musical director and orchestrator. He also led the fine eight-piece orchestra.
The Tony-nominated and Emmy-winning Lonny Price directed. As he has directed both in film and on the stage, he has a wealth of experience to bring to this complex show. One wonders if he didn’t make too many staging contributions to this already confusing story.
James Noone's set decorated mainly in black, marble, Art Deco-like designs was quite stunning visually, but may have added to the confusion. It would have been helpful to have the set reflect its primary time period of the mid-1990s. Tracy Christensen is responsible for the costumes, including Billie's stunning outfits.
In spite of its flaws, there's a lot to like in "A Legendary Romance." One roots for its success in future productions. It's worth some additional work. And even though it didn't fully pay off its promising opening, but it's also well worth seeing in its current presentation at WTF.
"A Legendary Romance." Music and Lyrics by Geoff Morrow. Book by Timothy Prager. Direction by Lonny Price. Music Direction and Orchestrations by Charlie Rosen. Scenic design by James Noone. Costume Design by Tracy Christensen, Lighting Design by Robert Wierzel, Sound Design by Kai Harada. Starring Jeff McCarthy, Lora Lee Gayer, Roe Hartrampf and Maurice Jones. With Jose-Maria Aguila and Trevor Guyton. Tickets at www.wtfestival.org.
Tags: Williamstown Theatre Festival, WTF,
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