`Harrigan 'n Hart' -- two 19th-century theater legends

Harrigan 'n Hart Musical comedy by Michael Stewart (book), Max Showalter (music), Peter Walker (lyrics). Based on material compiled by Nedda Harrigan Logan and ``The Merry Partners,'' by E. J. Kahn Jr. Period songs by Edward Harrigan and David Braham. Directed by Joe Layton. Choreography by D. J. Giagni.

``Harrigan 'n Hart,'' which opened last night at the Longacre Theatre, pays tribute to a pair of legendary names in the annals of 19th-century American theater. Edward Harrigan's plays with songs were extensions of his variety sketches. The biographical musical by Michael Stewart, Max Showalter, and Peter Walker is a Broadway extension of certain biographical incidents in the lives of Harrigan and Tony Hart and the troupes they led.

Ned Harrigan's plays were admired by a public that ranged from New York's orphan newsboys to the reigning champion of realism, William Dean Howells himself. Harrigan once described his approach to playwriting quite simply: ``Laughter and tears should be the component parts. The sunshine is not appreciated without the shade.''

In their own way, Mr. Stewart and his colleagues have applied the concept to ``Harrigan 'n Hart.'' The adapters stick reasonably close to the history of a partnership that began in 1871 and flourished for more than a decade before succumbing to assorted vicissitudes. Harrigan wrote, directed, and produced the sketches, and later plays, in which the ``merry partners'' co-starred. The fire that destroyed their Theatre Comique in 1884, only four years after its opening, was the fatal event in their association. It brings the curtain down on Act I of ``Harrigan 'n Hart.''

The show opens with Mark Hamill (Tony Hart) in drag doing a thoroughly campy takeoff of ``Put Me in My Little Bed,'' a tear-jerking song for which the teen-age entertainer was famous. Throughout his career, Hart's renown rested in part on his skill with women's parts. Under Joe Layton's direction, Mr. Hamill settles for burlesque. He and the excellent Harry Groener (Ned Harrigan), set the pace for a high-spirited production.

By its nature, ``Harrigan 'n Hart'' alternates constantly between private scenes and public performance. The device, plus a handy revolving stage, allows for maximum use of the numerous songs by Harrigan and his father-in-law, David Braham, from the original plays. Among them are such characteristic and mostly comic numbers as ``Mulligan Guard,'' ``I Love to Follow a Band,'' ``Maggie Murphy's Home,'' ``Skidmore Fancy Ball,'' and ``Dip Me in the Golden Sea.'' The infectious joy of the last-mentioned, plus the zest with which Mr. Groener, Armelia McQueen, and the company perform it, captivated the audience at the preview I attended. Here as elsewhere, Peter Howard's precise conducting responded to the bouncy Braham tunes, while D. J. Giagni's choreography maintained the drive of a fast-paced performance.

It remained for Peter Walker and Max Showalter to furnish the complementary words and music requisite for a latter-day Broadway musical. This they have done in journeyman fashion with numbers like Harrigan and Hart's ``Wonderful Me,'' ``Something New,'' and especially ``That's My Partner.'' As Hart's wife, Gerta Granville, Christine Ebersole sings ``What You Need Is a Woman'' with beguiling tenderness and later does what she can to win a little audience sympathy for the nasty Gerta in ``I Need One More Chance.'' (Accurately or not, Mr. Stewart has picked strong-willed Gerta as the villainess of his backstage plot.)

The aftereffects of the fire and progress of Tony's fatal deterioration inevitably overshadow the second act of ``Harrigan 'n Hart.'' Partly perhaps to alleviate the situation, and also to fulfill its obligations to Harrigan's subsequent success, huge playbills of his more popular dramas are unfurled while the ensemble performs yet additional Harrigan-Braham numbers. Meanwhile, the remaining plot details get taken care of and the show moves toward its finale.

``Harrigan 'n Hart'' is in many respects a likable show that ends up by being rather a disappointment. The period feeling of David Mitchell's complex, full-stage setting is not fully sustained in the performance. In his book ``The Merry Partners,'' E. J. Kahn Jr. referred to young ship caulker Harrigan's having switched from oakum to hokum when he became an entertainer. At times, the hokum in ``Harrigan 'n Hart'' might astonish that protean showman.

Ann Hould-Ward has costumed the production with a cosmopolitan flair befitting the theatrical version of a 19th-century New York City melting pot. The lighting design is by Richard Nelson. John McKinney fulfilled the large assignment of supervising, arranging, and orchestrating the musical mixture.

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