Musical Cocktails Laced With Humor

It’s a relief to welcome the ladies back to the driver’s seat, no matter how slight or small the vehicle, and in the Apple this summer, there are enough of them in full racing gear to enter the Indianapolis 500.

They’re all celebrating the 100th birthday of Richard Rodgers. Bernadette Peters is in the wings, revving up her motor to celebrate the songs he wrote with Oscar Hammerstein II (June 19 at Radio City Music Hall). Kitty Carlisle Hart and Celeste Holm take the stage to introduce “Favorites and Rarities” from the Rodgers songbook (June 26 at the Museum of the City of New York). On June 27 at 2 p.m., at the New York Public Library, Barbara Cook will teach you how to sing them yourself. On June 28, every glamour girl on Broadway invites the public to a free concert at noon at the Gershwin Theatre. You’ll be humming “Some Enchanted Evening” in your sleep.

Meanwhile, something special is happening at the Algonquin. Toned and terrific, Mary Cleere Haran is back after too long an absence, illuminating the fabled but musty Oak Room with the fire and force of a klieg light. Eschewing the billowy, lyrical and harmoniously schematic banquets from the second half of Rodgers’ career with Hammerstein, she’s focusing on the charming, melodically simple but agelessly sophisticated amuse-bouches he wrote with Lorenz (Larry) Hart. She loves these songs. It shows. In Falling in Love with Love , which runs through June 29, she serves up a heart-filled, Hart-healthy diet to fit every menu.

From the gorgeous, seldom-heard verse of “Dancing on the Ceiling,” to the wacky, champagne-impaired flapper bubbling her way through a 1929 gem called “Baby’s Awake Now,” to the melancholy cynicism of “Nobody’s Heart,” Ms. Haran swings into whatever moods the songs plead for, then matches them with the sharp acting ability to play all the characters who sing them. She mixes musical cocktails and laces them with humor. “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” is so full of mischief it could be about J. Lo’s rear end. Her customarily witty patter is a carefully researched mix of biographical facts and personal memorabilia. Between songs, you learn what happened the first time Rodgers, a serious Columbia student, met the slap-happy Hart at his home on West 119th Street, and how they struggled in the lean years before a 1926 revue called The Garrick Gaieties , staged to raise money for sets and costumes for the Theatre Guild, turned them into “overnight sensations.” Relaying a synopsis of the disastrously misguided 1948 MGM biopic Words and Music , she ranks the miscast Mickey Rooney’s portrayal of Larry Hart on a par with Patty Duke’s drunken Neely O’Hara in Valley of the Dolls . (Aside from the fact that they were both midgets, the similarities were nonexistent. Hart was dark, Jewish and gay; Rooney was an Irish redhead, and such a satyr with the backlot starlets that Louis B. Mayer ordered the waiters to add saltpeter to his food in the studio commissary.)

The Algonquin show traces the rise of this mismatched team from Broadway, where they wrote 20 scores in five years, to Hollywood, where they penned songs for Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald, Jean Harlow and Bing Crosby. During the time they were turning out hits like “Blue Moon,” “My Funny Valentine” and “The Lady Is a Tramp,” Hart was a train wreck waiting to happen. In his sad, declining years, Larry succumbed to depression and alcoholism, and in 1943 Rodgers finally threw in the towel and moved on to a new collaborator, producing the history-making Oklahoma! with Hammerstein II. Larry died the same year, at the age of 48. The songs survive them both. Ms. Haran could be speaking for me when she sums up the Rodgers oeuvre with these words: “When he worked with Hammerstein, they wrote for the whole world. When he worked with Larry Hart, they only wrote for five guys at Sardi’s. For better or worse, I’ve always felt like one of those guys.”

Of course, nothing illustrates the timeless fascination of Rodgers and Hart like the songs themselves. Exquisitely gowned and elegantly self-assured, Ms. Haran explores a diverse canvas of those classics-”Ten Cents a Dance,” “Where or When,” “It Never Entered My Mind”-with a voice warm and rich as Belgian cocoa. She’s in good company. The beautiful arrangements are by Richard Rodney Bennett, whose sensitive piano chords are supported by the distinctive bass lines of Linc Milliman. Ms. Haran would not classify herself as a jazz singer, but she can change tempos, croon ballads and phrase behind the beat with the best of them. Best of all, she has elegance and spruce and-I hate to use the term- class! That may be a dirty word, at a deplorable time in our history when there’s so little of it around, but she’s reinvented it, in a show as tasty and sophisticated as it gets. Singing a rare but dreamy evergreen like “Blue Room,” she offers, promises and delivers freedom from second-rate rock ‘n’ roll bondage with stress-free purity. Mary Cleere Haran-get used to that name-is a throwback to the great days when debonair men and glamour girls in orchid corsages and Ceil Chapman gowns wandered forth after dark to dance, dine and fall in love, content in the knowledge that there was no mood so gloomy in life that it couldn’t be lifted or lightened with a song by Rodgers and Hart.

Woo’s Carnage

Just when you thought there was nothing new to say about World War II, along comes Windtalkers , another exciting, head-bashing action epic from Hong Kong’s John Woo ( Face/Off and Broken Arrow ), about a little-known footnote to history-the heroic role played by Native Americans in winning the war against the Japanese in the South Pacific. The battle sequences are exhausting, violent and overwhelming, but it’s the story of how the Navajo used their native language to invent a secret military code the Japanese could never break that makes this movie memorable. Expect a box-office bonanza.

After the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese broke every encrypted U.S. military transmission, causing relentless damage to U.S. warships and severely curtailing all Allied progress in the Pacific. In the following year, 29 Navajo were summoned from their reservations, recruited as Marines, and instructed to create new codes out of their own words to symbolize 211 common military terms. (The Navajo word for “crow” stood for “patrol plane,” the word for “potatoes” substituted for “hand grenades,” etc.) These men-some of whom were the sons of honored tribal chiefs-were called “code-talkers,” and their mystifying banter on walkie-talkies was essential to winning the war. In the end, as many as 400 “windtalkers” hit the front lines to bravely defend the country that once scalped them, yet their contribution has been classified by the Pentagon until now. These warriors were so vital to U.S. victory that officers were assigned to protect them (and the codes) from the enemy “at all cost.” To the filmmakers, this includes killing the Navajo if they were captured. In truth, no such orders ever existed: It would have been illegal for any Marine to be ordered to kill a fellow Marine. The premise is pure poetic license, but it does make for a great moral dilemma. Hell, it’s a John Woo movie, not a documentary.

The characters are fictional, too, although the events that surround them are true. Set during the bloody 1944 Battle of Saipan, Windtalkers explores the racial intolerance, ignorant skepticism and physical abuse to which the Navajo were subjected, as well as the eventual bonds they forged with their fellow Marines, who learned to like them, trust them, depend on them for survival and ultimately treat them like brothers. It’s quite a story, and Mr. Woo’s direction, mixing his usual brand of carnage with more introspective character development than he’s famous for, evokes both horror and tears.

Nicolas Cage and Christian Slater are excellent as the officers reluctantly forced to “baby-sit” the American Indians in combat. Mr. Cage is powerful, persuasive and sympathetic as the sole survivor of a suicide mission in the Solomon Islands that got his entire squadron killed. Seriously wounded, riddled with guilt, dehumanized and depressed, and mostly deaf from a perforated eardrum, he has only one drive-to kill all the “Japs” on the planet. After a sympathetic nurse (Frances O’Connor, fresh from The Importance of Being Earnest ) helps him cheat on his hearing exam, he even spurns her love for the sake of duty and heads back to battle, only to discover that he’s been designated to guard two Navajo who have no combat experience. Mr. Slater, as his sidekick, warms to the task faster, sharing a love of music and family values with the men. It’s the kind of soft-hearted nice-guy part he does in his sleep, and continues to do charmingly. Mr. Cage’s role is the complex centerpiece-a tough loner living on booze and painkillers who is so lacking in emotion that he even gives away his medals of honor to the widow of a young comrade. The most interesting part of the film is the slow unpeeling of layers in Mr. Cage’s focused portrayal of a man so tortured by the past that he’s lost all faith in the future. When he relinquishes his medications to an injured child in a bombed-out island village, we know he’s still capable of some emotion behind the stoic mask and the battle scars, but nothing will prepare you for the ironic dilemma he eventually must face when forced to make an ethically challenging life-or-death decision involving the young Navajo he has come to respect and befriend.

The two code-talkers, Ben Yahzee and Charlie Whitehorse, are beautifully rendered portraits of pride and humanity under fire, dynamically played by Adam Beach and Roger Willie. The ensemble work by the Marines is exceptional; special mention must be made of Noah Emmerich as the radical bigot whose hatred dissolves when his own life is saved by one of the Indians he has bullied in the latrine as well as the foxhole.

Windtalkers crams so much divergent information into its running time that the script often seems like a filing cabinet. Disturbing action scenes and exposition of military tactics are separated by getting-to-know-each-other dialogue; then it’s back to more destruction. The film is so full of John Woo’s trademark graphic violence that some people will see it with their eyes closed-but it’s worth it for the slick camerawork and polished production values. It’s like the first 25 minutes of Saving Private Ryan stretched over two hours. I liked it a lot, but the weak and the skittish are hereby warned.