Mary Cleere Haran always puts together crisp, well-written cabaret shows. When it comes to dispensing entertaining historical nuggets about 20th century American music, she and Andrea Marcovicci are arguably the two best practitioners of the art. In the past, we haven't always admired Haran's singing as much as her patter, largely because we didn't feel her fundamental connection to the lyrics. Not so in her new show, Falling in Love with Love: The Rodgers & Hart Story. A lover of words, Haran has a soul mate in Lorenz Hart, and that comes through in her lyric interpretations as never before.
Put simply, this show at the Algonquin Hotel's Oak Room is Haran's best ever. She tells the story of Richard Rodgers and Larry Hart with warmth and wit; there is economy in the spinning of her anecdotes and she connects herself to those stories through her own personal experience of performing in one of the team's shows when she was a kid starting out in show business. The Rodgers & Hart tale has built-in drama and pathos--Hart died in 1943, the same year that Rodgers and his new partner, Oscar Hammerstein II, galvanized Broadway with Oklahoma!--but Haran tells it with admirable restraint, delivering the emotional content with a mixture of poignancy and elegance.
Even more importantly, Haran sings the Rodgers & Hart story with a sophisticated stylishness coupled with sensitivity--and she doesn't do it the easy way, by offering one standard after another. Her act is liberally stocked with lesser-known gems, though there also plenty of the team's classics to anchor the show and Haran shrewdly uses them to gain extra emotional impact. For instance, she sings "It Never Entered My Mind" (from Higher and Higher) to suggest the numbing sadness that Rodgers must have felt upon hearing of Larry Hart's death. The essential tone of the show, however, is light and bright.
There is much to admire here, from Haran's wonderfully woebegone singing of "Falling in Love with Love" to her sharply focused and funny duet with her longtime musical director, Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, on "He and She" (from The Boys from Syracuse). On the debit side, the act is not well staged for the problematic shape of the Oak Room: Haran plays almost exclusively to the front wall, failing for the most part to turn and face patrons seated behind her. (Karen Akers, who preceded her in the Oak Room, staged her act as if it was theater-in-the-round: She gave the patrons behind her the same attention as those in front, and it worked brilliantly. Haran and other performers might well consider taking the same approach when playing this venue.)
Finally, a cheer for Haran's unfettered love of Hart. Even in a year when Oklahoma! has been revived on Broadway, she goes out of her way to say she much prefers Hart to Hammerstein--a provocative but refreshing statement.
[For Mary Cleere Haran's schedule of performances at the Oak Room and other information on the show, click here.]