Before rock 'n' roll, a big chunk of pop music came from Broadway musicals. Every successful show had a big hit and, usually, a couple of smaller ones. One memorable songwriting team at the end of that Golden Age was Rodgers & Hammerstein. Before them was an even more memorable team: Rodgers & Hart.
In many ways, lyricist Lorenz Hart was a greater inspiration to Richard Rodgers than Hammerstein, and the evidence is on stage at Saddleback College's Cabaret Theatre in Saddleback Civic Light Opera's production of "Rodgers & Hart, A Celebration."
Hammerstein's corn-fed Americana exemplified in "Oklahoma!" and "South Pacific" was right for its time, but Hart's sophisticated and intricate lyrics spoke not only for their era, but also prompted Rodgers to write melodies that were more intricate, inventive and sophisticated than anything he ever wrote in later years.
On Wally Huntoon's charming period-conscious setting, the patio of a chic Long Island home, director and musical director Don Cloud has staged what amounts to a valentine to Rodgers & Hart.
Conceived and first staged on Broadway in 1975 by Richard Lewine and John Fearnley, the show glides effortlessly through the R&H; team's career, from a collaboration in the middle 1920s in "The Garrick Gaieties" to the final show they wrote together, 1941's "Pal Joey."
There are 61 songs in this show, a small percentage of the team's output. Lewine and Fearnley were wise enough to include the most familiar ("Ten Cents a Dance," "With a Song in My Heart") but didn't neglect Hart-fan favorites such as "My Romance" and "A Ship Without a Sail," or some of the team's little-known but delightful efforts such as "Way Out West (On West End Avenue)."
Cloud knows this territory and guides us through it with insight and a refined sense of its period--the Jazz Age and the Great Depression--and the music's place in it. His staging is clever and brisk. His tempos and feel for the humor and, yes, even the insecurity, of Hart's words is enchanting.
He has also gathered a young cast of six that seems to come straight from the Rodgers & Hart era--not only because of Diane Lewis' period-perfect costumes. The actors are at ease on the set and in the musical world they too briefly inhabit.
Hart's cleverness, his magical imagery and interior rhymes pop out of the performers' mouths as though sung and spoken for the first time. The women--Robin DeLano, Kristie Martin Hill and Mindi Leighe Metzger--are talented sopranos with the verbal clarity that marked Broadway singers of Hart's day; the men--David C. Beaver, Damon Dodge and Matthew McCray--baritones all, have the same ability to make every Hart poetic inflection count.
Some highlights in the evening are McCray's "With a Song in My Heart," Metzger's "A Ship Without a Sail," Dodge's "Poor Johnny One-Note" and Beaver's slightly outrageous "Way Out West," but they're just creme on top of the brandy souffle that is everything else in this show.
As long as young people can still interpret the songs of a team like Rodgers & Hart with this panache, the world can't be in the sad shape we sometimes think it is.
* "Rodgers & Hart, A Celebration," Cabaret Theatre, Saddleback College, 28000 Marguerite Parkway, Mission Viejo. 8:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 3:30 and 8:30 p.m. Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday. $19-$21. Ends Aug. 2. (949) 582-4656. Running time: 2 hours.
A Saddleback Civic Light Opera production of Richard Lewine & John Fearnley's revue of the songs of Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart. Direction/musical direction by Don Cloud. With David C. Beaver, Robin DeLano, Damon Dodge, Kristie Martin Hill, Matthew McCray and Mindi Leighe Metzger. Choreography: Susan Cable. Scenic design: Wally Huntoon. Lighting design: Kevin Cook. Costume design: Diane Lewis. Production stage manager: Erica Mikelson.