“ SWEET, SMART RODGERS & HART ” at the Poway Center for the Performing Arts
KPBS AIRDATE: January 12, 1994
With music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Lorenz Hart, you can’t lose. Or can you? When writer/director Steven Suskin conceived of “Sweet, Smart Rodgers & Hart,” he was pretty sure he’d have a winner on his hands. And he oughta know. Besides being co-producer of the much acclaimed “Falsettoland” and “Speed-the-Plow,” Suskin also co-produced “Forever Plaid” in 26 cities, including this one, where it made three visits. Not only that, but Suskin is a welll-known chronicler of the history of musical theater in America, having written three seminal books on the subject. So what went wrong with this co-pro between Pasadena Playhouse and the Poway Center for the Performing Arts?
It’s not the onstage Ferrante and Teicher twins, Kevin Cole and David Snyder on the pair of pianos, playing their guts out. It’s probably not the musical arrangements by Cole, although, sticking close to the original conceptions, some sound pretty dated. God knows it’s not the material; Rodgers and Hart, in their tempestuous, near-quarter-century relationship, penned about 650 songs between 1919 and 1943. One could quibble with Suskin’s selections; not all the biggies are among the 31 he chose to present. But enough of them are — incredible, imperishable songs like “Betwitched,” “Where or When,” “Thou Swell,” “(I’ll Take) Manhattan.” And some of the lesser-known numbers are quite charming and very witty. It’s not the sequential arrangement of songs, either. They cover the turf of love, hope and desire. Or, more aptly for the depressive Hart, hope for love, lost love, unrequited love — offset by clever, punny humor.
Onstage, things are technically simple, but that’s fairly standard for musical revues. That’s what makes them so attractive for community and regional theaters, as well as traveling productions: they’re basic, and low-budget. The proscenium here is fringed with a kind of Wurlitzer look, and in the background there are drops of sheet music, attractively lit. But downstage, the costumes are singularly unflattering — in both acts. And besides not looking their best, the cast just has no panache. And that’s what revues in general and Rodgers and Hart songs in particular require most of all.
There are three women and one man in the cast. The voices are fine, but there’s no charisma, no real spunk. The first act costumes could be a metaphor for the whole evening: they have the pseudo-flash of sewn-on spangles, but they’re still a basic, uninspired grey.
The standout performer is veteran Karen Morrow, who gets most of the comic and character songs, and really knows how to put them over. She’s a hoot in numbers like “To Keep My Love Alive,” and heart-rending in “Why Can’t I?’ and “Glad to Be Unhappy.” In revues, there should be a show-stopper for every singer. But there isn’t. The direction and staging, by Suskin and Onna White, are partly to blame. There’s an awful lot of just standing around, mostly because only two of the four singers can dance. When they do, things get more lively, but never really polished. Everyone seems to be counting beats. And the show has already played Pasadena, so it should be pretty slick by now. Without a clear plot or characters, revues run the risk of being just a pleasant, superficial evening at the theater, easily forgotten. But that shouldn’t be true of songs that have lasted for fifty years; both the writers and the material should be memorable. Somehow, despite all the best intentions here, we don’t get enough about the composer and lyricist and though we may love their message, we’re not enthralled with the messengers. That makes it easy to forget what you’re hearing while you’re hearing it.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1994 Patté Productions Inc.