A Legendary Romance, book by Timothy Prager, Music and Lyrics by Geoff Morrow. Directed by Lonny Price. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Lora Lee Gayer as Billie; Jeff McCarthy as Joseph; photo: Daniel Rader
"You can't let the facts get in the way. . ."
Jeff McCarthy; photo: Daniel Rader
The heart knows what the heart wants. The trouble with life is the heart often wants more than one thing. In the new musical, "A Legendary Romance" now on stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, three hearts never beat as one although the common pursuits of all three people beat in rhythm and pine for the same things at the same time. However each person has his or her own goals, their own individual desires and agendas, and when those perfect facts about themselves meet, they often collide instead of collude.
Regret plays a large part in the plot here. Wrong choices, difficult choices, keep interrupting the natural tendencies that each of the main characters feels. We are in Hollywood in the early 1950s much of the time; Senator McCarthy and his assistant Richard Nixon are prosecuting American citizens for their belief, support and interest in Communism. Their particular view of Hollywood is that the Jews and the Reds have taken over the American image factories and are punching out propaganda in the movies and television and that they must be stopped, silenced, done away with at any cost. Joseph Lindy, a film producer, is under scrutiny when he meets a young actress, Billie Hathaway, casts her in a film, and falls in love with her.
She is by no means easy and with each attempted seduction there is confusion and charming fear exposed. Likewise he exhibits all the bad habits of a teen-age boy and a middle-aged man concerning the process of wooing. Jeff McCarthy, long a favorite performer of this reviewer, delivers all of this emotional confusion with startling clarity both in his dialogue and his songs. We first meet Joseph in 1994 when a film about him and his star is being made and he has come to view the first cut. He is adamant that the film is fiction and not fact and that it may not be released. Dealing with this attempt to stymy his picture, the Producer, played with grace, wit and a dramatic flair for flogging statements of fact by Maurice Jones, tries to contain the ire Joseph expresses.
Frankly, this was all I knew about this show before seeing it. I was sure it would be another trite portrayal of the movie business and that there would be no surprises, BUT I was completely bowled over the brittle brilliance of the script and the score. It is a show that must move on to the main stem where Jeff McCarthy must emerge, finally, as the Perfect Theatre Star at last. His depiction of the deeply troubled man, unable to grapple with his decisions and incapable of taking a correction on his emotions is exceptional. With fourteen musical numbers to sing his stamina proves incredible. The largely emotionally gripping scenes between those songs are equally engaging. The man never leaves the stage and his stage becomes the world. This is the ultimate achievement in acting, I believe, to create and to hold an entire world and a vast universe in your hands and to present them gently to the waiting audience, keeping the world and the universe from crumbling, keeping them always visible and always moving.
As his co-star and keen competitor for possession of the stage is Lora Lee Gayer as Billie Hathaway, actress and starlet, who falls hard for Joseph and is in turn loved by him. Billie is not the most beautiful woman in Hollywood but she is unique and attractive and a pound of dynamite in the romance department. What Billie has, and Gayer shows us, is a special charismatic power. It is hard to keep from looking at her. Whether on film or on stage, Gayer makes this play out perfectly. She is a lovely singer, and reportedly a dancer though there is little opportunity to show off that skill, who, in Act Two, gets to sing one of the most marvelous pieces in the show, a Blues, dark and devious, entitled "You Didn't Call, You Didn't Write." Try to keep from tearing up as this actress delivers a full blast of idealism in song.
Once again regret rears its dominant head as the storyline rips apart two destined lovers at a crucial point in American history when neighbors, friends and relatives were being torn apart by legal, social issues not relevant to themselves. I don't know if the historic relationship to our own time was intended by the authors, but from this point on in the play there is something far too familiar about our 2017 political scene within the play itself.
It is the protection of a loved one that cause Billie to make a social and political move that counters what Joseph believes in and this destroys the legendary romance that has been building between them. Asked what he would have done, what he believes in, the answer comes swiftly as a blow from a hammer might come, "Just a statement, just a fact." Her response is simple, honest and true: she has done what she has done for love of him. Her response is not good enough for the idealist romantic. It destroys what the show has been building to for an hour and a half.
Lora Lee Gayer sings "You Didn't Call, You Didn't Write"; photo: Daniel Rader
Roe Hartrampf; photo: Daniel Rader
The third side of the triangle is Vincent Connor, created by Joseph to take over the role of producer since his own communist affiliations could taint the motion picture and the success of its young star. Connor does what he is told, then expands on his own volition to the role of co-star and attempts the role of co-lover of Billie. Roe Hartrampf is terrific in this role of a two-faced, ambitious man on the Hollywood fast-track. We watch him attempt to manipulate matters to his own advantage in both the film world and bedroom of his star. His absolute winning ways work wonders as she sways between the two men. By the way in a show with nineteen musical numbers these three players sing all the songs leaving the three remaining cast members to act their roles and stand back away from the music.
Hartrampf has possibly the most difficult role to play. We like him, then we dislike him, then we like him again, then we despise him and then we sympathize with the plight he faces as all he has built begins to crumble. He is a very engaging young actor who sings beautifully, a tenor to McCarthy's healthy and robust baritone, and looks the romantic ideal.
Maurice Jones as the Producer of the 1994 film about these three is really terrific in the role. His remarkable high humor draws a lovely contrast to McCarthy's doom and gloom. Mendez, Joseph's loyal assistant, is played by Jose-Maria Aguila and the Delivery Man, played by Trevor Guyton, who delivers scripts, packages and summons, are both well acted.
Part of the success of this production is the design team. James Noone's perfect California modern set works for both time periods and the costumes by Tracy Christensen are ideal for this show's eras. Robert Wierzel's lighting is so good that in a final duet between Joseph and Billie ("The Things I Never Said") it is absolutely a certainty that he is relating romantically with her ghost until Wierzel snaps us back into reality. David Bova and J. Jared Janas have created wigs that bring truth to the company's looks.
In exactly two hours Lonny Price delivers a near perfect package to the Williamstown stage, lifting the entire WTF season close the stratosphere. He has the great script by Timothy Prager and lovely songs by Geoff Morrow to work with and this very fine group of actors to interpret script and song to his specifications. My only concern is the early and constant distancing of the two leads (Gayer and McCarthy) and a tweak here and there to enliven that sense of true love, true facts of love, would be welcome.
Broadway must have this show. Broadway must have Jeff McCarthy and Lora Lee Gayer and Roe Hartrampf and Maurice Jones. This show touches on things that the heart deserves even if it doesn't know it. Personally, I want the CD, and the DVD, and another chance to see this show live and in person. If you can get to it, you must. Just in case it doesn't move on.
Maurice Jones, Trevor Guyton. Jeff McCarthy, Jose-Maria Aguila, Lora Lee Gayer, Roe Hartrampf
A Legendary Romance plays on the Williamstown Theatre Festival's Main Stage of the '62 Center for Theater and Dance at Williams College, 1000 Main Street, Williamstown, MA through August 20. For information and tickets contact the box office at 413-458-3253 or go on line at www.wtfestival.org.