A galvanic Jeff McCarthy leads a powerhouse cast in wildly uneven new musical at Williamstown Theatre Festival

WILLIAMSTOWN — You almost don't notice him at first; the man standing on stage in a shaft of light; his back to the audience. That is because, like him, our attention is drawn to an oversized movie screen poised at an angle over the rear of Williamstown Theatre Festival's spacious main stage.

Playing out on the screen, in black and white, is the violent resolution of a complicated relationship — a wife making plans to run away from her rich husband with her nondescript lover. A gun, shots ring out, a body falls to the floor, a dramatic tearful farewell before death makes its claim.

It's the final scene of a movie, "A Legendary Romance," made in the 1950s but never completed. The man looking up is its producer, Joseph Lindy (Jeff McCarthy). The actress, Billie Hathaway (Lora Lee Gayer) was his prot g and fianc e and the young man, Vincent Connor (Roe Hartrampf), someone who never existed.

But the time is now as "A Legendary Romance" — a fitful new musical by Geoff Morrow (music and lyrics) and Timothy Prager (book) — begins. As it progresses, past and present, film, stage and life; pretend and reality will mingle in ways that are as compelling, haunting and imaginative as they are frustrating.

The framework for "A Legendary Romance" is the effort of a modern-day film producer — played by Maurice Jones with a perfect blend of spark, drive and enough Hollywood savvy to know just when to apply pressure and when and how to back off — to persuade Lindy to sign waiver that would allow the producer to release his own version of Lindy's never-made would-be masterpiece.

The collapse of the original project was shrouded in suspicion, gossip and controversy. For Lindy, the producer's project is an obscenity and plunges Lindy smack into a past from which he has never fully broken free. The truith turns out to be as fantastical and as challenging to one's willing suspension of disbelief as any grade-B Hollywood melodrama. It doesn't help that the resolution feels abrupt, facile and say-what? It all has to do with the Hollywood blacklist of the 1950s; the fear and paranoia that struck the town as men and women suspected of being Communists, people associated with them, were denied work and either resorted to working under assumed names or hired fronts who lent their names and persona to work created by those who were blacklisted. It is, in fact, Lindy's decision to hire a front, whom he names Vincent Connor when he is blacklisted after refusing to give the House Committee on Un-American Activities the name of a suspected Communist that sets in motion the events that ultimately result in the collapse of the "Legendary Romance" project

Hartrampf plays Connor with gripping conviction but the character makes no sense as he moves relentlessly to separate Billie from Lindy under the pretext that he is thinking only of her and the damage to her career if she goes ahead with her plans to marry Lindy. There is no clear suggestion he is in love with her himself. He's a man who becomes intoxicated with some kind of power the source of which is never explained nor does it make sense. "Why are you doing this?" a frustrated Lindy shouts at Connor at one point. "Because I can," Hartrampf's Connor snarls back at him. Dramatically, their antagonism comes to a head in a powerful, driving first-act finale, "He Never Kissed You That Way."

Politics intrude in a debate between Lindy and Billie over the value of the House committee's investigation into Communist infiltration of Hollywood; in a grinding, if powerfully rendered, second-act reprise of a first-act song, "Snip Snip." Individual scenes and moments gather emotional force only to have that force dissipate in scenes that seem only to mark time. And the overall resolution feels convenient. The score is tuneful and melodic; the lyrics serviceable.

Beyond the meaningful and creative ways in which film is used, what fuels "A Legendary Romance," even through its moments of incredulity, is the uncommon strength of its performances throughout, but especially with McCarthy whose breathtaking conviction, passion, fervor and consummate skill drive this show in ways that are as poignant and deeply moving as they are funny and insightful. McCarthy is a force of nature. And Gayer keeps up with him, emotional measure for emotional measure, making Billie and Lindy's love story, in the end, legendary.

Reach Jeffrey Borak at 413-496-6212


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