To be perfectly honest, there were times during the first act of Falling for Make Believe, Mark Saltzman’s fictionalized homage to the life of Lorenz “Larry” Hart, when I became so focused on the painfully slow set changes with no musical accompaniment or on the generally stiff lead performance from Nate Hall (playing a made-up gay lover of Hart) that I wondered whether I would be able to find anything other than the wonderful Rodgers and Hart songs to enjoy. But, as the act went on, I noticed several tantalizing hints that this play might be waiting for Act Two to truly come alive.
As it turned out, I was absolutely right.
And that life derived from a truly excellent performance by Sean M. G. Carron as Richard Rodgers. (He also takes an entertaining-but-brief turn as Gene Kelly, where he gets the dancing down but can’t mimic Kelly’s silken voice.) From the outset, Carron’s Rodgers is seriously frustrated by his gifted lyricist partner Hart (another strong performance, this one by Sean Michael Barrett), whose excessive drinking and public (sometimes homosexual) gallivanting are becoming serious threats to their partnership. As the play goes on, Rodgers moves from frustration to real anger, and his frequent threats to dump Hart become more intense and, in Carron’s capable hands, believable.
Barrett is not as gifted a performer as Carron, but his work as Hart creates exactly the right level of sympathy for this brilliant writer who, as Saltzman’s script allows us to witness, is able to come up with clever, rhyming lyrics so quickly that it was stunning in the 30s, so long before the advent of rap. Hart’s heavy drinking and gay private life, which too frequently here spills over in ways that might easily become public and fatal to his career, make him a tragic figure. Barrett allows us to see both the vast potential of this man and the impossibility of his double life. Rodgers and the real-life dentist-turned stage agent Milton “Doc” Bender, played here by the imposing Donaldson Cardenas, both try to convince him to find a woman to marry him for show, and he actually tries at one point, asking a friend, actress and singer Vivienne Segal (a very likable and talented Mandi Corrao), but she refuses, leaving Hart to his male lovers.
Hart, who died from pneumonia in 1943 shortly after losing his partnership with Rodgers and his ailing mother, was a man who probably might have been a huge personality in another era, but the closeted 30s led him to a life of severe depression. Barrett captures both sides of his character well, allowing us to understand why Rodgers kept him on so long despite his issues. Carron’s powerful performance underscores the (platonic) love between these men as well as Rodgers’ awe at Hart’s lyrical gifts. (Rodgers, of course, teamed up with Oscar Hammerstein II after splitting with Hart; their first play together was Oklahoma.)
Corrao makes a wonderful and believable Segal, a true friend to both Rodgers and Hart and the star of some of their most popular shows. Her performances here of “The Lady Is a Tramp” and “Johnny One-Note,” as well as many other numbers in this songbook biographical musical, allow her to show off her musical chops in various modalities. I’ve seen her before in several productions and have always come off impressed. She’s not the only impressive female performer in this show, though. Cheryl Szucsits practically steals the show with her multiple roles as Peggy, the pianist/friend who helps Hall’s Fletcher Mecklin with his first Broadway audition, a droll jail guard, and others. Her Act Two opening appearance is uncredited, but let’s just say it is a welcome surprise “cameo.”
As for Hall, while his fine vocals certainly justify his presence, his overall flat affect does not allow him to create any real chemistry with Barrett’s Hart, even in a scene where both are drunk and in jail or another in which he seduces him. He is not helped by Saltzman’s narrative conceit that too often finds him sitting at a small desk reflecting on his past relationship with the lyricist. (It’s a nice touch by Properties Designer Karen Lee and Director Wayne Mell to have an empty bottle of Moet & Chandon—the champagne that Hart gives to Mecklin in one scene—sitting on the desk, revealing the character’s empty life and what might have been.) Actually, Mecklin’s (and Hall’s) best moments come during the interplay with Szcutsis’s Peggy, before he even meets Hart.
Backing all of the fine voices here, the three-piece band is excellent, though its live presence makes the lack of underscoring during scene changes even more noticeable). Patty Halajian’s costumes, especially in a fantasy dance sequence near the end, are fun. And choreographer Susan Pritzker has a field day recreating classic 30s and 40s dance moves. Mell, meanwhile, with the exception of those unfortunate scene changes, keeps the action moving along nicely throughout so that the slower seduction scene, which is certainly the turning point for both Hart and Mecklin, stands out even more than it ordinarily would have.
In the end, it wasn’t difficult for me to recommend this play despite some flaws. Take it for what it is: a chance to get to know more about Rodgers and Hart, and a showcase for some of their beautiful songs, many of which (like “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered,” “I Could Write a Book,” “The Lady Is a Tramp,” and “My Funny Valentine”) have become parts of the Great American Songbook and classics for the ages.