BWW Reviews: Bewitching But Bothersome FALLING FOR MAKE BELIEVE at Colony Theatre
Brett Ryback, Rebecca Johnson & Ben D. Goldberg" src="https://images.bwwstatic.com/upload10/497400/Deborah_S_Craig.jpg" alt="L to R: Brett Ryback, Rebecca Ann Johnson & Ben D. Goldberg" width="592" bheight="394" />
"Falling in love with love is falling for make believe..." These are the immortal lyrics and the title reference of Lorenz "Larry" Hart and the subsequent musical based on his often-tumultuous and relatively shrouded life. Currently in its world premiere run at Burbank's Colony Theatre through May 19th, Falling for Make Believe is a 95-minute bio-musical-dramedy chock full Broadway nostalgia, debilitating alcoholism, covert homosexual dalliances and musical fantasy sequences that is often-times bewitching, occasionally bothersome, and at points just downright bewildering.
The principal cast is superb. Ben D. Goldberg is every bit the sensitive, brilliant, tormented genius that one would hope to find in the man who wrote "My Funny Valentine". With a likeable ease and flash that fits in perfectly with the life and times, Goldberg delivers a skillful and complex performance as Larry Hart, whose charisma and outstanding talent often made up for the professional and personal troubles he caused with his drinking, depression, and closeted lifestyle. Brett Ryback is delightfully sincere (and lamentably underused) as the straight arrow Richard Rodgers, who spends the entirety of the play making futile efforts to keep Hart out of trouble. His constant threats to find another lyricist serve as ominous foreshadowing for the doomed partnership and the place in history these two friends and legends would eventually fall into. The dashing Tyler Milliron plays "Fletcher", a fictional aspiring actor whose accounts of the times and his occasional run-ins with Hart serve as the narration for the piece. While some of the major problems with this show are tied to this particular character (more on that later), Milliron demonstrates himself to be an adept performer with a marvelous tenor. But its Rebecca Johnson as the original Pal Joey star Vivienne Segal (for some inexplicable reason called "Vivian Ross") who ultimately walks away with the show. From the moment she bursts onto the stage with "The Lady is a Tramp", the energy level in what is otherwise a rather sluggish piece (that 95-minutes should be taken loosely) picks up considerably whenever she's onstage. With a powerhouse belt and all the brass of notorious Broadway leading lady, Johnson is well-deserving of the spotlight. Of course it doesn't hurt that she's given all the best musical numbers as well, from "Tramp" to "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" to a very haunting rendition of "Blue Moon".
The score, as to be expected, is a classic Broadway-lover's dream. With standards from the Rodgers & Hart catalogue including "Manhattan", "Where or When" and, of course "Falling in Love with Love", you can't help but be awed and swept away by the music, and mourn the loss of a such a tremendous talent. Stricken down at 48 by pneumonia, brought about from exposure after a night of heavy drinking, Hart's life was even more ephemeral and topsy-turvy than the brief glimpses this show attempts to offer.
The book is the main problem here, and the source of many of the production's inherent problems. Written by Mark Saltzman, the truncated one-act structure unfortunately isn't able to go much deeper than an expose of Hart's homosexuality and binge drinking. Narrated by "Fletcher", starting with the day of Hart's funeral and flashing back and forth between past and segments of the eulogies, the nonlinear narrative plus moments of pure musical fantasy get a bit tedious after a while. An intermission and a healthy dose of factual revelations would have worked wonders here to help even out what is otherwise a rather schizophrenic tone. While this might be a matter of strictly personal taste, there's something of a disconnect when trying to incorporate musical fantasy sequences into material that is intended to be biographical. The moment when Dorothy Rodgers (played by Megan Moran)-a grievously omitted historically-relevant figure who has virtually no presence in this show other than this one scene-breaks into "Isn't It Romantic" to laughably lament the fact that her husband includEd Hart on their honeymoon to keep tabs on him is totally out-of-place. Then there's the odd choice of using a completely fictional and relatively-distanced character to tell this story. "Fletcher Mecklan" introduces himself to us as a wide-eyed, aspiring Broadway actor (and homosexual) from small-town Pennsylvania. By his own accounts, he refers to himself as potentially the true love of Hart's life. That's a pretty large significance placed on a character that is entirely fictitious. Couple that with the fact that the number of times "Fletcher" and Hart actually interact with one another throughout the course of the show can be counted on one hand and most of the time Hart has trouble remembering who he is, and you have to wonder why we are supposed to invest or identify with this person at all. Vivienne Segal (er, "Vivian Ross") would have made a much more credible narrator with a much more valid perspective as to Hart's romantic life. The scene in which Hart asks "Vivian" to form a marital arrangement is certainly one of the more poignant and thematically relevant moments of the piece to be sure.
Overall, the same questions posed to the author can be asked of the audience in terms of what type of experience you want to come away with from this show. If the desire is some beautiful songs in the hands of some perfectly capable performers, a few laughs and possibly a few tears along the way, this show is for you. Anything past that, you may be left wanting. But whether you fall in love with this show or find that there's too much make believe, the team of Falling for Make Believe is to be commended for telling the story of one of Broadway's most notorious romantics. It's the preface to a man, on how we met, that the world can never forget.
FALLING FOR MAKE BELIEVE will continue through Sunday, May 19 at The Colony Theatre, 555 North Third Street (at Cypress) adjacent to the Burbank Town Center Mall. Performances are Thursdays & Fridays at 8:00pm; Saturdays at 3:00pm & 8:00pm; and Sundays at 2:00pm. Ticket prices range from $20.00 - $42.00 (student, senior, and group discounts are available). For tickets, call the Colony Theatre Box Office at 818/558-7000 ext. 15 or online at www.ColonyTheatre.Org.