Rodgers and Hart Failure

Rodgers and Hart Failure
By Savannah Whaley

With the exception of a few years in the early Thirties spent toiling in Hollywood's movie factory, lyricist Lorenz Hart and composer Richard Rodgers held sway for nearly a quarter of a century on Broadway. Between 1919 and 1942, the pair defied box-office odds by rolling out 25 hits (and only three flops), feeding the public's demand for frothy revues (two editions of The Garrick Gaieties) and light musical comedies (Babes in Arms, Jumbo, The Boys from Syracuse, By Jupiter). Not surprisingly, their Tin Pan Alley standards -- which leapt from the stage to sheet music and radio shows -- have endured to overshadow the team's contributions to the evolution of American musical theater: Peggy-Ann (1926) put Freud's theories of the subconscious on the stage for the first time; On Your Toes (1936) brought serious dance to musical comedy with George Balanchine's "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue" ballet; and Pal Joey (1940), with its despicable antihero, was a precursor of the musical drama.

Hollywood glamorized Rodgers and Hart in the 1948 biopic Words and Music, but in real life the duo struggled, with Hart's alcoholism and manic depression ultimately ending the partnership. By the close of 1943, Rodgers had revolutionized musical theater with Oklahoma! (written with his new partner, Oscar Hammerstein II); meanwhile, Hart was dead, having succumbed to pneumonia after being found drenched from rain in the gutter outside an Eighth Avenue bar.

Their shows seem dated today, their best-known songs ("Blue Moon," "My Funny Valentine," "The Lady Is a Tramp") most often heard on the stages of supper clubs, Las Vegas ballrooms, and cruise ships. With Beguiled Again! An Original Rodgers and Hart Revue, West Palm Beach's Pope Theatre Company brings the pair back to the legitimate stage in a slick medley-fest conceived and directed by J. Barry Lewis and Lynnette Barkley. Disappointingly, their return to the boards would better suit Vegas or the high seas -- at least audiences there who wish to gamble on it could get a drink.

Scenic designer Michael Amico's stunning set evokes Rockefeller Center's original Rainbow Room, New York City's swankiest Depression-era watering hole, in all its Art Deco glory, including grillwork panels, metal and wood columns, and a geometrically patterned granite floor. But this Rainbow offers no theatrical pot of gold, as six pert entertainers race through more than 50 songs taken from 25 shows without slowing to consider pace, context, or even the beauty of Rodgers's music and the artistry of Hart's words.

Presented without a unifying concept, the revue adopts several miniscenarios. The first occurs when a stagehand removes the darkened stage's ghost light seconds before the cast emerges dressed in cocktail-club attire. Michelle Carano, Kim Cozort, Tom Kenaston, Heather Laws, Michael Marotta, and Seth Swoboda hit the right congenial opening note, energetically launching into a medley of "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," "The Lady Is a Tramp," and "Thou Swell." Yet that first "scene" has nowhere to go, seguing into another greatest hits collection of "This Can't Be Love," "I Could Write a Book," "Mimi," and the dishearteningly prophetic "Johnny One Note."

The nightspot conceit gives way to Kenaston -- supposedly a Twenties-era Hart -- penning "Blue Moon" in a brief vignette that turns into a musical revue with flappers in feathered headbands and gents in straw hats dancing the Charleston, cakewalk, and soft-shoe through another quartet of hits. Then Hart's back for another try at "Blue Moon" before the stage is transformed through microphones and an applause sign into The Rodgers and Hart Radio Hour, broadcasting their compositions coast-to-coast. In the production's highlight, Kenaston trades in his undefined Hart persona for well-deserved laughs as a harried stage manager who cues Marotta's warm crooning and Kozart's comic subbing for an absent singer.

After conquering the airwaves, the revue heads for Hollywood with a medley built around hats: berets for "Song of Paree," laurel wreaths for "Dear Old Syracuse," fedoras for "A Great Big Town (Chicago)," and sombreros for "She Could Shake the Maracas." With the exception of a few more fleeting appearances of the cigar-chomping Hart and a brief second act cabaret sequence, Beguiled Again! trades concept for concert.

Barkley's inventive choreography and Erin Stearns Amico's fun costumes enliven the unconnected production numbers with a colorful movable feast for the eyes in a show determined to starve the brain. They are aided by a hard-working cast that is almost desperate in its desire to please. In addition to Kenaston's deft comic mugging, Swoboda nicely handles the specialty dances, and Carano convincingly adds character to her songs. Marotta's strong voice uncovers the warmth in Rodgers's music; Cozort mixes high notes and low comedy; and Laws smartly carries off most of the solo numbers. And yet while the star of Beguiled Again! should be the songs of Rodgers and Hart, nearly everything here is reduced to snippets sung by the entire ensemble -- there are fewer than a half-dozen solos, and almost no songs are presented in their entirety. When the frenetic pace of the revue slows down (rarely) for a ballad, the staging is reduced to the singers standing rigidly in half-light, although there are some variations: standing in half-light singing a cappella, standing in half-light singing in profile.

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