This is exactly the sort of musical diversion you would expect to find at the King’s Head: a well-performed compilation of three dozen songs by Rodgers and Hart on a tiny stage cluttered with sheet music and with a pianist and bass player and not all that much by way of a story.
In other words, a nice little revue which is just the sort of thing you might be in the mood for if you felt you couldn’t quite face Lord of the Rings or the Maxim Gorky epic at the National.
David Kernan has devised the From the Hart catalogue with actor/writer John Kane to suggest the unremarkable theory that Lorenz Hart channelled his bottled up capacity for love into his lyrics. More specifically, they play on the unrequited passion Hart harboured for Rodgers. Unfortunately, the lyrics themselves never once hint at homosexuality and songs like “Thou Swell, Thou Witty, Thou Grand” and “There’s a Small Hotel” are hymns to any ideal conventional boy-loves-girl relationship.
It’s this mixture of yearning and witty snap that gives Hart his distinctive, delightful flavour, and Kernan is too smart a singer himself to insist on a reading of “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” as the dark lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Instead, Caroline Clegg’s production goes along with the conceit as a vague device of pushing the songs together.
Within half an hour we’ve already had priceless gems, learning that “when love congeals, it soon reveals the faint aroma of performing seals” and that if you love someone, any old place will do - “I’ll go to hell fer ya, or Philadelphia.”
The cliché is true: Rodgers and Hart wrote great songs, Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote great musical dramas. And when Hart died of depression and chronic alcoholism in 1943, aged just 48, he knew that Oklahoma! had transformed musical theatre beyond the limitations of his own revue-based compositions.
Which does not mean you may not prefer Pal Joey and On Your Toes to Carousel and The Sound of Music (I think I do). Rodgers, with Hammerstein, became a musical dramatist. With Hart, he was merely a melodic genius. In 25 years together, Rodgers and Hart wrote 28 shows and more than 600 songs. George Balanchine considered Hart to be the Shelley of America.
John Guerrasio’s impersonation makes him more – but not enough - of a punk than a poet, grinning pleasantly behind a large cigar. I’d prefer to imagine Hart – who was five-feet-nothing in his socks – as a scowling midget with black rings round his eyes and a cheap crack sliding out of his mouth every two minutes. But, hey, why should I want to look in a mirror when I go to a show?
Louisa Maxwell, Lucy Kerans-Hunt and Matthew Barrow pile up the evidence of breathtaking talent with hectic efficiency and high spirits, while the celestially gifted, elegantly piratical Peter Straker proves that singing rock songs and Jacques Brel can indeed be good training for the real stuff. Nigel Hook is the clever designer and the expert musical accompaniment is by Neil McArthur on piano and Dave Berry on bass.
- Michael Coveney