The brief but artistically blessed life of legendary Broadway lyricist Lorenz Hart now serves as the inspiration for Falling For Make Believe, a Colony Theatre World Premiere musical that entertains, elucidates, and ends up this spring’s most unexpected treat.

FALLING FOR MAKE BELIEVE - 3 “Tasteless, discreet, and false” is how composite character “Fletcher Mecklin” (Tyler Milliron) describes radio tributes to the “lifelong bachelor, married to his words,” upon his death at the age of 48, purportedly “after a long illness.” Hogwash, says Fletcher, who knew the real Larry Hart (Ben D. Goldberg) and loved him, not for what he could get out of him (as many did), but for the man that he was—difficult, conflicted, irresponsible, but with a romantic soul that only his lyrics could reveal.

Falling For Make Believe book writer Mark Saltzman introduces us to Fletcher, fresh off a Pennsylvania Dutch farm and auditioning for Rodgers & Hart’s A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court. The year was 1927, and for someone of Fletcher’s “sort,” the 1920s offered only two options, “living it down low or living it up.” Fletcher chose the latter, while for a deeply closeted Larry, the former was the only conceivable option.

Though prohibition was the law of the land at the time, underground speakeasies like “Vincenzo’s” made it possible not only for New Yorkers to imbibe but also for gay men to congregate, to hold hands, even to dance together before the 21st Amendment made alcohol legal again and pushed men like Larry Hart even further into the closet, bars no longer being secret hideaways.

FALLING FOR MAKE BELIEVE - 5 It’s at Vincenzo’s that Fletcher meets Larry Hart for the second time, along with composer Richard Rodgers (Brett Ryback), composite Broadway star “Vivian Ross” (Rebecca Ann Johnson), and Doc Bender (Jeffrey Landman), the real-life dentist-turned-agent who made sure his number one client stayed on the down-low even as he supplied him with buckets of booze throughout their long, destructive association.

Next to reminisce is Richard Rodgers, who recalls the awe he felt at the age of 16 upon first meeting 23-year-old Larry, who ended up joining Richard and his new bride Dorothy (Megan Moran) for their “three’s company” honeymoon in France, a vacation à trois that Dorothy takes with a grain of salt, quipping, “It’s not like I’m the first woman to marry a man with a child.”

Vivian rounds out our picture of Larry Hart, expressing regrets that her own platonic love story with the lyricist didn’t start sooner, as well as recalling what a jokester Larry could be when in one of his lighter moods, as during a radio broadcast from the St. James Theater which we get to spy on.

FALLING FOR MAKE BELIEVE - 4 Throughout these early scenes, Falling For Make Believe treats us to many of the song hits that made Rodgers & Hart the toast of Broadway. “Thou Swell,” “My Heart Stood Still,” “I Wish I Were In Love Again,” and “Isn’t It Romantic?” are just a handful of the nearly two dozen songs performed on the Colony stage by a couldn’t-be-better sextet of performers, adding up to an intermissionless 95 minutes of music and memories.

Unlike the sanitized Hollywood biopic Words And Music, which starred Mickey Rooney as a heterosexualized Larry, Saltzman’s book does not hesitate to present the legendary lyricist warts and all, and it is all the more fascinating and powerful for its honesty.

Again and again, Richard loses patience with Larry’s irresponsibility, his habitual lateness, his drinking, and his days-long disappearances. Richard even goes so far as to threaten seeking out a new lyricist if Larry doesn’t get psychiatric help. Meanwhile, Vivian rejects Larry’s marriage proposal, not for lack of love, but because, plainly put, he wouldn’t be able to satisfy her in bed. As for Fletcher, though the lovestruck ex-farmboy does finally get to consummate his desires for Larry, his closeted paramour finds it impossible to believe that anyone could love him for himself rather than for what they could get out of him.

FALLING_FOR_MAKE_BELIEVE_-_1 Throughout the highs and lows of Larry Hart’s life, Falling For Make Believe keeps those Rodgers & Hart hits coming. Vivian and Richard duet “Bewitched, Bothered, And Bewildered,” Vivian solos “My Funny Valentine” and “Blue Moon,” and in a party sequence at New York’s City Center, we are regaled with “With A Song In My Heart,” “Mountain Greenery,” “Sing For Your Supper,” “Where Or When,” and “Johnny One Note.”

Along the way, lighter comedic sequences keep Falling For Make Believe from ever becoming a downer, as when Richard locks Larry into their office till he comes up with a lyric, something the word whiz does in mere seconds. Later, when it’s time for Larry to write the lyrics for “I Could Write A Book,” it’s a pair of muses played by Johnson and Moran who inspire Broadway’s wittiest wordsmith to come up with his latest confection.

Colony Theatre newbie Jim Fall’s direction is every bit as inspired as the musical he helms, as are the performances of all six of its stars.

Goldberg brings Larry Hart to life in all his dimensions, so that like those around him, we find ourselves both frustrated by Larry’s self-destructive impulses and rooting for him to find the happiness he deserves. Not surprisingly, the popular L.A. cabaret star croons Rodgers & Hart with the best of them.

It’s great to see Ryback once again in musical theater mode following his Scenie-winning dramatic performance in The Prince Of Atlantis. Not only are the quintuple-threat’s acting chops first-rate, he once again shows off terrific pipes and tickles the ivories to perfection.

FALLING FOR MAKE BELIEVE - 2 In Vivian Roos, Scenie winner Johnson gets the showcase role she so richly deserves, the stunning redhead appearing straight out of the Technicolor 1930s/40s, radiant with glamour and singing the best of Rodgers & Hart like a veritable Broadway superstar.

Landman (like Ryback and Johnson a Lead Performance Scenie winner) gets to sink his teeth into the villainous Doc, a role he makes far more than just a cardboard bad guy. The Broadway vet is particularly memorable singing an aptly-placed “Falling In Love With Love,” having just made sure that Larry cuts ties with Fletcher for fear of blackmail.

Moran makes a standout L.A. theater debut in a trio of deftly delineated turns—as snappy audition accompanist Peggy, as the lovely and very understanding Dorothy Rodgers, and as the butch policewoman who informs “lewd conduct” arrestees Larry and Fletcher that degenerates get incarcerated in the women’s cells—for their own protection.

Finally, there is Milliron, who gives the evening’s standout dramatic performance fresh from his revelatory work in Master Class. Not only does the operatic tenor dig deep into Fletcher’s beautiful, ahead-of-its-time soul, he  looks every bit the matinee idol and sings the bittersweet “Nobody’s Heart” quite movingly indeed. Bring Kleenex to wipe away tears.

Musical director Keith Harrison shares credit for the cast’s topnotch vocalizing. The fabulous four-piece offstage orchestra is composed of Brian Boyce, Kathryn Lounsbery, Larry Tuttle, and Jesse Wiender. Vocals and instrumentals are expertly blended by sound designer Drew Dalzell.

Falling For Make Believe looks as sensational as it sounds, thanks to Jeff McLaughlin’s gorgeous art-deco set, MacAndME’s detailed period properties design/set dressing, and costume designer Dianne K. Graebner’s gorgeous 1920s/30s/40s suits and gowns, all of which Sohail e. Najafi lights with abundant pizzazz. Cassie Russek gets A+ for hair and wigs.

Leesa Freed is production stage manager and Brian Cordoba assistant stage manager. Robert T. Kyle is technical director and Eric A. Mitchell assistant lighting designer.

Scenie-winning Dames At Sea choreographer Lisa Hopkins gets to strut her stuff in Falling For Make Believe’s flashy “what if” grand finale, though creative team Fall and Saltzman make the wise decision not to give their musical too rosy an ending, preferring instead to leave us wondering what might have been if only Larry Hart had been able to live his life honestly and openly—even as we stand cheering the musical that at long last tells his tale.

Colony Theatre, 555 North Third Street, Burbank.

–Steven Stanley
April 27, 2013
Photos: Michael Lamont

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