The Colony Theatre in Burbank continues its fight for survival due to serious financial shortfalls, but you’d never know it from the venerable mid-sized venue’s fine season-ender, “Falling for Make Believe.” This world premiere musical by Mark Saltzman, developed by the Colony, delves into the troubled life of lyricist Lorenz Hart through actual events, deft fictional constructs and a feast of glorious Rodgers and Hart songs.
The musical opens in 1943, on the day of Hart’s New York funeral. Sensitive Pennsylvania farm boy-turned-Broadway hopeful Fletcher, one of Hart’s lovers (and a Saltzman creation) listens to radio tributes and grieves for the happily-ever-after that never was. In contrast, we see composer Rodgers give a eulogy carefully crafted for public consumption.
(Hart was an alcoholic and a closeted homosexual fearing career-ending exposure. The torment that both fueled and undermined the gifted lyricist’s creative genius wasn’t public knowledge even decades after his death from pneumonia.)
Following the rather broadly telegraphed opening scene comes a flashback to 1927. Fresh from summer stock, Fletcher (Tyler Milliron) prepares to audition for a brand new Rodgers and Hart show, “A Connecticut Yankee,” and his friend Peggy (Megan Moran, playing multiple roles with engaging comic energy) teaches him one of the show’s songs.
At the performance I attended, you could almost hear a collective “ahh” from the audience during Milliron’s achingly expressive rendition of “My Heart Stood Still.” The music, after all, is where this production lives. “Manhattan,” “This Can’t Be Love,” “Where or When,” “Pal Joey,” “I Could Write a Book” are just a few of the nearly two dozen songs woven into Saltzman’s script. (And top marks to sound designer Drew Dalzell.)
Rebecca Ann Johnson is a showstopper as vivacious real-life Broadway diva Vivienne Segal (here transparently renamed Vivian Ross). With her gorgeous pipes, Johnson is up for anything, belting out “The Lady Is a Tramp,” bouncing through “Mountain Greenery” with Goldberg and crooning a nuanced “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” What Brett Ryback as Rodgers and Ben D. Goldberg as Hart lack in comparable vocal power they make up for in melodic, resonant stylings. And Ryback is so convincing at the onstage piano, that it’s nearly impossible to tell if he’s faking it.
Jeffrey Landman, playing Hart’s agent and sleazy enabler Doc with beady-eyed avidity, defies one-dimensional expectations with the pathos of his “Falling in Love” solo. It’s doubtful that “Falling in love with love is falling for make believe/Falling in love with love is playing the fool” could be sung with more grinding bitterness.
Hart’s secret real life turns out to be notably on display in many of these lyrics, and director Jim Fall, musical director Keith Harrison and the entire top-notch six-member cast make the most of it. (Concealed offstage, keyboardist Kathryn Lounsbery plays keyboard and conducts Larry Tuttle on bass, Jesse Wiener on keyboard and percussionist Brian Boyce.)
Fletcher, tired of “the secrets and shadows” of his own closeted life, hopes to attract Hart’s attention and be admitted to “the golden circle” of Manhattan sophisticates. But he doesn’t land the show and before the two briefly connect as lovers — an interlude directed and performed with heart-rending tenderness — they meet in a speakeasy, then a jail cell after a police sweep for “degenerates,” and, after the crash of 1929, at a department store where Fletcher is singing and selling sheet music. Too damaged to trust or return affection, Hart is unable to sustain the relationship. Goldberg’s tears are real when he sings “You Are Too Beautiful.” The production is no weep fest — there’s ample humor —but the depth of feeling among the cast powers authentic emotional resonance.
A few quibbles: Saltzman’s book thins in places. Rodgers is sketched primarily in the composer’s impatience with Hart’s no-show attitude toward work and his alcoholic binges, yet this creative team was formed when Hart was in his 20s and Rodgers still a teenager. Their remarkably fruitful years together encompass a lengthy joint history and an apparently dramatic dynamic shift between them. Other fleshing out (the show runs an intermissionless 95 minutes) could give stronger acknowledgment of Hart’s odd physical appearance as a significant factor in his sad self-loathing, although Goldberg’s suave attractiveness works against it. (Of diminutive stature, with a large head, Hart is often described as “gnomish.”)
Production values, despite the Colony’s budget woes, are solid. The visual polish of Jeff McLaughlin’s Art Deco-style unit set is complemented by lighting designer Sohail e. Najafi’s glow of sunset and the “Blue Moon” twilight viewed through lofty, oversized windows. Multi-level platforms and stairs provide effective performance spaces for seamless scene changes and for choreographer Lisa Hopkins’ enjoyable, if brief, solo and group numbers. Costume designer Dianne K. Graebner, too, enhances the proceedings in no small way with a notable variety of well-tailored, well-researched ensembles.
The Colony has had many critical successes during its nearly 40-year-old history. It can count this show among them. Here’s hoping that the company will weather hard times and continue adding to the tally.
What: “Falling for Make Believe”
Where: Colony Theatre, 555 N. Third St. (at Cypress), Burbank (adjacent to the Burbank Town Center Mall).
When: 8 p.m. Thursday through Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Added performance, 7 p.m. this Sunday. Post-show talk on Thursday, May 15. Ends next Sunday. $20 to $42.
More info: (818) 558-7000, www.colonytheatre.org
LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.