by Macey Levin
The new musical A Legendary Romance at the Williamstown Theatre Festival has a lot going for it, but it does have some flaws.
The play takes place in 1994 and centers on a 1950’s long-forgotten film producer, Joseph Lindy, (Jeff McCarthy) the subject of a new movie based on his life. The plot depicts his relationship with Billie Hathaway, (Lora Lee Gayer) an actress he fashioned into a star and to whom he was engaged. It also includes Vincent Connor, (Roe Hartrampf) an early protege who mysteriously disappeared. Of course, a romantic triangle evolves.
Joseph is meeting with the producer (Maurice Jones) who needs him to sign a release; he refuses. The film implies that Lindy shot and killed Connor which he vehemently denies. It also focuses on the premise that Joseph’s career was ruined when he decided not to reveal names in Senator Joseph McCarthy’s HUAC hearings.
After shepherding Billie through a series of films into stardom, Joseph proposes marriage which she readily accepts. As they are preparing another movie, entitled A Legendary Romance based on their relationship, he receives a subpoena to appear in front of McCarthy’s committee. He decries Elia Kazan and others who have already given names of colleagues in previous hearings and vows not to divulge any information about others or himself.
Because of Joseph’s new-found notoriety the film is going to be shelved by the studio. Determined to see the project through, he devises a plan. He will find an unknown actor he can control and have him offer to buy and produce the film under his name. Enter Vincent Connor. As Joseph, Billie and Vincent develop the story, subterfuge, betrayal and jealousy undermine them.
McCarthy, making his Williamstown debut, mines many of the characteristics associated with Hollywood filmmakers… arrogance, manipulative, sleazy… but he also makes us like Joseph. When he argues for his principles we are empathetic because he has gained our respect. McCarthy is a solid performer with a strong voice who holds the stage with conviction and poise.
Gayer more than holds her own as Billie. Possessed of a powerful voice, she embodies the transformation from a young, inexperienced actress into a confident star. Her love for Joseph is palpable until they find themselves in several conflicting moments which are manifested in confusion and a latent vulnerability.
The darkest character is Hartrampf’s Vincent. When he arrives on the scene he is a brash, young actor who has crashed a party at Joseph’s home. As their plot develops he becomes more confident and he too adopts the unscrupulous nature of a Hollywood mogul. The change is striking.
Lonny Price has directed the play beautifully creating compelling stage pictures and coordinating filmed sequences with onstage action. One jarring point… a sofa is the central piece of furniture. When it is an obstacle to the action, McCarthy pushes it to the periphery and then pushes it back when it’s needed. Should the lead actor be doing this?
Many of Joseph’s movies were of the film noir genre and the play has the same tone. The production is a mixture of flashbacks, scenes from the new film, scenes from Lindy’s movies, his imagination, two time periods onstage at the same time – all done effectively. The book by Timothy Prager, however, is melodramatic. The plot rings of soap opera as does the dialogue which is delivered honestly by the cast, but the artificiality lingers.
Much of the music by Geoff Morrow is appropriate for the moments’ moods and purpose while his lyrics incorporate some forced rhyming as well as some unexpected and untoward phrasing. In “There Comes a Time/I Don’t Believe It” Vincent intones “…he’s speaking from where the sun don’t shine…” On the other hand, Joseph and Billie’s duet “The Things I Never Said” is pleasantly poignant. The lightest song in the score is Billie’s “Me?” in which she contracts herself with current movie stars – Katherine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Betty Grable, Jane Russell and others.
James Noone’s set has several effective elements – a long staircase and balcony that showcases entrances, a turntable, a movie screen suspended high above the stage, haze that appears. His work is complemented by Robert Wierzel’s often dramatic lighting. Tracy Christensen’s costumes, of which there are multitudes for Billie and Vincent, reflect the different eras in which the play takes place.
The show has its merits, especially the performances, the music and the technical elements, but the book needs some revamping. It is, however, an interesting theatre experience.
A Legendary Romance, Music and Lyrics by Geoff Morrow, Book by Timothy Prager, Directed by Lonny Price; Cast: Jeff McCarthy (Joseph Lindy) Maurice Jones (Producer) Lora Lee Gayer (Billie Hathaway) Jose-Maria Aguila (Mendez) Roe Hartrampf (Vincent Connor) Trevor Guyton (Delivery Man); Music direction and orchestrations: Charlie Rosen; Scene design: James Noone; Costume design: Tracy Christensen; Lighting design: Robert Wierzel; Sound design: Kai Harada; Wig and hair designers: David Bova and J. Jared Janas; Stage Manager: Lindsey Turtletaub; Running Time: Two hours, one intermission
Williamstown Theatre Festival Main Stage, 1000 Main Street (Rt. 2) in Williamstown, MA; From 8/3/17; closing 8/20/17