WILLIAMSTOWN — Some musicals skimp on story. Whatever its flaws, and it’s got plenty, “A Legendary Romance’’ cannot be accused of that.
The narrative architecture of “A Legendary Romance,” now at Williamstown Theatre Festival under the direction of Lonny Price, is intricate and admirably ambitious, even if the finished structure is unwieldy.
This is a curiously asymmetrical show. Despite its shortcuts, loose ends, and gaps in character logic, Timothy Prager’s multilayered book contains enough twisty intrigue and conceptual complexity to keep us generally engrossed.
“A Legendary Romance’’ weaves the tale of a turbulent romance between Hollywood producer Joseph Lindy (Jeff McCarthy) and actress Billie Hathaway (Lora Lee Gayer) in the early 1950s. Their relationship, shadowed and greatly complicated by the specter of McCarthyism, still haunts Lindy more than 40 years later. The desire to not just revisit but revise the past runs through “A Legendary Romance.’’
Unfortunately, in a work that is so much about memory, Geoff Morrow’s music and lyrics seldom make a decisive claim on our memory, or our hearts.
Morrow is a veteran songwriter whose tunes have been recorded by Elvis Presley, Johnny Mathis, the Carpenters, and Barry Manilow. (He co-wrote Manilow’s unbearable “Can’t Smile Without You,’’ though I’m not going to hold that against him.) There are exceptions, but too often when the actors launch into song, “A Legendary Romance’’ tends to lose steam — the opposite of what’s supposed to happen with a musical.
It opens in a screening room in 1994, where Lindy is watching scenes from an autobiographical film he started in the ’50s but never finished. A fast-talking young producer, portrayed by Maurice Jones, has taken enormous liberties with Lindy’s film while insinuating that Lindy had something to do with the disappearance back then of a guy named Vincent Connor (Roe Hartrampf), who had his eye on Billie — and on the main chance.
“A Legendary Romance’’ makes shrewd use of black-and-white filmed scenes (shot by cinematographer Jesse Patch and directed by Price) to thicken the plot and deepen character as the musical jumps back and forth in time, from the ’50s to the ’90s, on James Noone’s sleek set. With onscreen performers talking in real time to a flesh-and-blood character onstage, the debt to Woody Allen’s “The Purple Rose of Cairo’’ is obvious, and there are echoes of the musical “City of Angels’’ as well, but it’s still an effective device.
Director Price’s smooth facility with the material on both stage and screen reminds us that he is no stranger to tales of devious doings in Old Hollywood, having helmed the just-ended Broadway revival of “Sunset Boulevard’’ that starred Glenn Close. The leonine McCarthy, a pro’s pro, delivers the goods as Lindy, though I wish the script didn’t lock him into the posture of incessant fuming. Gayer, as Billie, is altogether terrific, projecting glamour, humor, vulnerability, and down-to-earth warmth in equal measure.
Nonetheless, Act 1 of “A Legendary Romance’’ is marred by periods of sluggishness as the plot mechanics clank into place. The pace picks up and the stakes escalate in Act 2. Throughout the show, much of the tension derives from the collision of the personal and the political.
Lindy, the producer, becomes a kind of smitten Svengali to ambitious and innocent young Billie in the early ’50s, but he also becomes, almost simultaneously, a target of Red-baiting hysteria driven by Senator Joseph McCarthy (one of many names the musical drops in order to evoke that era, including Richard Nixon, Hedda Hopper, Jack Warner, John Wayne, and, in an especially ham-handed reference that panders to the audience, Ronald Reagan).
A newspaper reports that Lindy is a communist, jeopardizing his career, Billie’s career, and the prospects for his new film, which is titled “A Legendary Romance.’’ So the quick-thinking Lindy comes up with a ruse, albeit a far-fetched one. He enlists a young actor newly arrived in Hollywood — essentially interrupting the actor’s attempt to seduce Billie — to serve as his frontman. The actor takes on a new name, Vincent Connor, and Lindy pretends to sell the film rights to Vincent, making him the producer, while intending to still pull the strings from behind the scenes.
Of course, Lindy soon discovers that there are limits to his control; he has to learn the lesson that creators from Dr. Frankenstein on have had to absorb when confronted with the willful waywardness of their creations. Vincent’s behavior eventually ignites a showdown in which Lindy’s political and ethical principles are put to a test — and his love for Billie is put to an even sterner test.
In working all that out, “A Legendary Romance’’ does not quite hang together. As with several other productions at Williamstown this summer, its reach exceeds its grasp. But there’s something to be said for the act of reaching.
A LEGENDARY ROMANCE
Music and lyrics by Geoff Morrow. Book by Timothy Prager. Directed by Lonny Price. Presented by Williamstown Theatre Festival at Main Stage, Williamstown through Aug. 20. Tickets $68, 413-458-3253, www.wtfestival.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.