Rodgers and Hart Failure

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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.

Rodgers and Hart left Hollywood because they balked at writing movie musicals in which characters burst into song without any motivation. The cast of Beguiled Again! is robbed of the very sensibilities that the songwriting team treasured; without any context of whom they are singing to or what they are singing about, the frustrated singers have nothing to offer but shining eyes and gleaming teeth.

Musical arranger Craig D. Ames is the man most responsible for missing the mark. At the on-stage piano (backed by Carlos Moran on drums and Lee Harr on upright bass), he is not content merely to mime Rodgers to Kenaston's Hart; no, he has stepped into the great man's shoes and completely reorchestrated Rodgers's works into a bouncy "five-six-seven-kick" rhythm. For example, Laws valiantly tries to get across the despair of "Ten Cents a Dance," only to be undone by an up-tempo arrangement that makes her taxi dancer seem more like one of the hoofers in Fame. The one time the revue lets Rodgers and Hart's work speak for itself (a medley of "Isn't It Romantic," "Where or When," and "Little Girl Blue" sung by a sparkling quartet), the show and our hearts stop to marvel at the pair's genius.

Offered a chance to hear beloved standards again in any format, most of the audience seemed enchanted and, true to the title, beguiled again. I, on the other hand, can't get past the show's subtitle: an original Rodgers and Hart revue. Hardly.

In a decision that turned out to be as much about nurturing rookie companies as presenting premieres, New Theatre artistic director Rafael de Acha asked three emerging theater troupes to carry on the Coral Gables-based company's annual New Plays Project (June 3 to 22) while he prepared to stage Tony Kushner's mammoth two-part Angels in America.

Akropolis Acting Company started things off with playwright and director Ricky J. Martinez's unintelligible .Epar. Tracy Talavera, Carolin Edelen, and Jennylin Duany appeared as Speakers 1, 2, and 3, who are either different sides of the same woman, three different women, or three sisters. (In considering a play whose title is spelled backward, one can't expect explanations.) Joined by Giovanni Luquini, the four presented the story of a woman -- sexually abused as a child by her father -- who is later raped by an intruder but enjoys it; or at least she decides to marry the rapist and bear his children. This multimedia happening included up-close-and-personal closed-circuit TV monitor views of the actors unfurling their tongues and massaging their armpits, as well as a film by Dinorah de Jesus Rodriguez that intercut footage of a pig being slit open and a woman being beaten. Even aided by words scratched onto the film (including dog/ god), I'm afraid this Akropolis offering was Greek to me.

At the other end of the structural spectrum (and presented third), Theatre with Your Coffee? produced two linear one-acts, Roberto Prestigiacomo's Giorgio and Alan Kravitz's Chloe, both of which had been developed in a series of public readings and workshops. The former moved between two time periods to tell the story of Elena, a young woman (April Daras, and later Jennifer Fenn) who bitterly grows into her forties after being manipulated by her sickly, overprotective mother (Rosina de Luca) into giving up her independence. Daras infused the young Elena with believability, but Fenn failed to inform us if resignation or desperation drove the frustrated caretaker. In a major shortcoming, de Luca's hearty portrayal raised questions about how much attention the mother really required.

Despite its Lifetime Channel melodrama, Giorgio is much tighter than the messy Chloe, which recounts the tale of a 27-year-old woman (Finnerty Steeves) who is reluctant to give up her incestuous relationship with her father (Larry Jurrist) to run away with the young man (Andrew Pond) who loves her. Here, everyone's motivations were a mystery, as Kravitz's shallow script, Peter King's indecisive direction, and the confused cast failed to carry off the delicate subject matter and its debilitating psychological fallout.

Situated in the middle of the run, Potlatch Theatre Lab's Guernika provided welcome intellectual, if not emotional, rewards. Conceived by the entire company, the production aimed at interpreting Pablo Picasso's powerful masterpiece (it shows the aftermath of Germany's bombing of the Basque city in 1937) and succeeded in echoing the painter's passion with some lasting fractured impressions of its own. After a ghostly opening, the cast of New World School students and graduates enacted the sentimental joining of two rival families through a marriage occurring in the days before the town's destruction. The bombs that fall the moment the ceremony ends send the cast into reverse, propelling them back through the plot right down to actions and dialogue being performed backward. With nonsensical stage business to watch and no characters to care about, the abrupt effect demolished the audience's emotional investment in the work. I don't know if this stylized view of the event, which underscored the fact that Hitler's bombs erased lives and severed close ties, was entirely successful. But even weeks after seeing Guernika, I do know that I'm still thinking about it.

Beguiled Again! An Original Rodgers and Hart Revue. Music by Richard Rodgers; lyrics by Lorenz Hart; conceived and directed by J. Barry Lewis and Lynnette Barkley; with Michelle Carano, Kim Cozort, Tom Kenaston, Heather Laws, Michael Marotta, and Seth Swoboda. Through August 31. For more information call 800-514-3837 or see "Calendar Listings.

In the July 3 issue, theater critic Savannah Whaley incorrectly identified the directors of two recent stage productions. Giorgio was directed by Peter King, and Chloe was directed by Lisa Kennedy. New Times regrets the error.

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