A Legendary Romance

Williamstown Theatre Festival opens an original musical with a political twist.

Lora Lee Gayer and Jeff McCarthy in A Legendary Romance, directed by Lonny Price, at Williamstown Theatre Festival.
Lora Lee Gayer and Jeff McCarthy in A Legendary Romance, directed by Lonny Price, at Williamstown Theatre Festival.
(© Daniel Rader)

"Romance" is the operative word in A Legendary Romance, a new musical by Geoff Morrow (score) and Timothy Prager (book) and directed by Lonny Price, now running on the main stage at Williamstown Theatre Festival. Cold War drama is joined with the Golden Age of Hollywood cinema, a seemingly bulletproof backdrop for what is framed as a sweeping love story. The show’s biggest misstep is putting all of its eggs in that one basket, because when the romance isn’t as legendary as promised, there’s not much else to fall back on.

Jeff McCarthy, with his unmistakable booming baritone, stars as Joseph Lindy, a big-shot 1950s film producer who now watches a film noir version of his life story in a screening room in 1994 (Price makes clever use of these film elements, blending them well into the action onstage). The movie ends with a dramatic murder — a man falling wounded into the arms of his beloved. Seeing as Lindy is here to tell the tale, process of elimination implicates him as the shadow at the barrel end of the gun.

It’s a rather unflattering portrayal, and according to Lindy, patently false. However, that’s not the concern of this film’s producer (played by a wheeling and dealing Maurice Jones). All he cares about is getting Lindy's legal approval and raking in the dough with this unsolved mystery of celebrity scandal. Unfortunately for him, Lindy isn’t quite ready to let the past go. So while Lindy contemplates his options in the screening room, he replays his own internal movie of what really happened — sometimes observing from the outside, but more often reliving his experiences alongside the shadows of his past.

Enter Billie Hathaway (Lora Lee Gayer), an inexperienced young actor in the 1950s with no confidence and a pretty face. She wants to audition for Lindy’s latest film, and he is smitten. Gayer is the highlight of A Legendary Romance, charming with her opening song "Me?" that lists all the self-deprecating ways she is less desirable than other glamorous movie stars. But it’s not enough to lay the foundation for her romance with Lindy, especially since we never see how he wins Hathaway’s heart — aside from an inappropriate suggestion of a dinner date during their first professional meeting. Pair that with the discomfiting look of an older man (present-day Lindy) coming on to a fresh-faced starlet, and the immediate impression is not exactly one of pure, fated love.

From there, we launch into Cold War politics, which is by far the more interesting side of the story. McCarthyism is tearing through Hollywood and lands the left-leaning Lindy on the black list, effectively killing his next project meant for the now-famous Hathaway (to whom he is also engaged). To keep her career from dying an early death, he finds an unknown wannabe-producer (played with sufficient slime and a pleasant tenor by Roe Hartrampf) to assume the fake identity of "Vincent Connor," who takes over the project in name only. In the 1994 storyline, popular opinion is that Lindy killed Connor when he and Hathaway struck up a romance of their own, but the real story has more compelling and less clichéd twists and turns than that — a testament to Prager’s book, which keeps you consistently invested in where this triangle is headed.

Morrow’s score, however, is not as memorable, nor as lusciously romantic as promised (and never gives Gayer the showstopping number she deserves). The similarly sounding songs rarely take us from one narrative point to another, and as we’re physically locked in a single room for both acts of the show, we feel stuck in more ways than one.

Scenic designer James Noone does a fine job blending past and present with just a few set pieces, framed by a regal gold staircase where characters from the past primarily enter. Costume designer Tracy Christensen also helps draw the line between decades, and makes us look forward to seeing the next period outfit that Gayer will appear in (the sets and costumes all have an elegant shimmer under Robert Wierzel’s lighting).

We get the sense, however, that Price could do more to bring us creatively in and out of the past — something to heighten the ethereal Follies-esque aesthetic that makes a memory play so theatrically compelling. With a cast of only six and no Broadway-style dance numbers to artificially enhance the experience, all we have is narrative. It’s an ambitious challenge for an original musical, but if you claim the word "legendary," you have no choice but to live up to the title.

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A Legendary Romance

Closed: August 20, 2017