MasterVoices performed a beautifully sung and played rendition of the legendary 1941 musical Lady in The Dark as part of New York City Center’s 75th Anniversary Season for three sold-out performances. Conducted and directed by MasterVoices’ artistic director Ted Sperling and starring Tony Award winner Victoria Clark as heroine Liza Elliott, the production offered a world premiere of a new adaptation of the Moss Hart book by Christopher Hart (the author’s son) and Kim Kowalke, and the complete critical edition of the Kurt Weill/Ira Gershwin score. While the musical portions were excellent, this concert version only made clear the strengths and weaknesses of this rarely revived musical play.
Originally conceived as a play for Katherine Cornell by Moss Hart after undergoing psychoanalysis with Dr. Gregory Zilboorg, he realized that it might work better as a musical play with the songs only appearing in the Glamour, Wedding and Circus Dreams while his heroine Lisa Elliott is on the doctor’s couch. He enlisted composer Kurt Weill (for his first commercial Broadway musical) and lyricist Ira Gershwin in his first assignment since the death of his brother George. British stage star Gertrude Lawrence had her greatest triumph as Liza Elliott, the woman who cannot make up her mind, and the show made a star of Danny Kaye who sang “Tchaikovsky” in 39 seconds – several times. The original cast also included future film stars Macdonald Carey and Victor Mature. While this was Hart’s last book musical, Weill and Gershwin went on to collaborate on The Firebrand of Florence (1945) which MasterVoices performed in concert in 2009.
Although Lady in the Dark is probably the first concept musical as it limits the songs to appear only in the dream sequences which are through-sung like little operettas, it has not often been revived since its premiere in 1941: it was seen at New York City Center in a concert staging during Encores!’s first season in May 1994 with Christine Ebersole and had a full production in Philadelphia in 2001 with Andrea Marcovicci. For one thing, the show needs an extremely lavish production. For another, the casting requirements are a problem. The leading role needs an actress who is superb at acting, singing and dancing, as well as alternately looking plain or glamorous. Not many actors want to follow Danny Kaye in his most famous role. And finally, as the MasterVoices staging shows, it has become dated with its extremely Freudian explanation for the heroine’s emotional problems.
Moss Hart’s book alternates between Liza Elliott’s magazine office and Dr. Brooks’ consulting room which also contains the musical numbers in the form of dream sequences. Liza Elliott, editor of Allure fashion magazine, has been having unexplained panic attacks for some months and with misgivings has gone to see psychoanalyst Dr. Brooks. On the couch, the plain and prim Liza describes her Glamour Dream in which dressed in a gorgeous gown and looking like a million dollars, she is the toast of the town and showered with admiration. When her portrait is painted, however, she is depicted as the prim, plain businesswoman that she is.
Back at the office, when her publisher and longtime married boy-friend Kendall Nesbitt tells her that his wife has finally agreed to give him a divorce, Liza is thrown into a panic. Photographer Russell Paxton introduces movie star Randy Curtis who is visiting for a fashion spread. Randy is immediately smitten with Liza and asks her out for dinner. Taking a nap, Liza has her Wedding Dream in which she relives her first high school days. During the wedding to Nesbitt, the minister (played by her art director Charley Johnson whose sarcastic humor Liza can’t stand) asks if anyone knows why they should not be married and the chorus replies that Liza does not love him.
Upset, she returns to Dr. Brooks’ office and recounts her dream. Dr. Brooks points out that in real life Liza refuses to compete with other women for men, pointing out that Kendall has been unavailable until now. When she returns to her office, Charley demands that Liza choose the circus cover for the next issue, but she refuses to make a decision, and he resigns as he really wants to move into her job. When Randy arrives for the dinner date that Liza never got around to cancelling, she decides to wear one of the magazine’s glamourous designer gowns and leaves with him.
Back in the office the next day, Liza has a waking dream in which she is put on trial in a circus for not making up her mind. Russell appears as the ringmaster, Charley as the prosecutor, Randy as the defense attorney, and Nesbitt as the key witness. In a final session with Dr. Brooks, Liza recalls in a series of flashbacks her childhood humiliations at not being thought beautiful: the comparison to her beautiful mother, a boy rejecting her as the princess in the school play, and the graduation dance in which the handsomest boy in her class asks her out and then goes back to his girlfriend when she calls for him. Dr. Brooks leads Liza to see that her problems started in these childhood traumas.
The following week, a more together Liza arrives at her office to three surprises: Charley Johnson, who has already resigned from the magazine, invites her to dinner; Kendall Nesbitt accepts Liza’s decision not to marry him; and Randy Curtis proposes marriage. Charley returns to say he will not give her the apology she requested and Liza surprises him by asking him to stay as co-editor. He begins humming the song “My Ship” which has been haunting her throughout the story and they both can now sing all the words.
The Hart/Kowalke adaptation trims the cast list somewhat and doubles some of the roles. This has the effect of making the large stage at City Center seem somewhat underpopulated for what is supposed to be a busy magazine office. Sperling as director had not been able to overcome this with the minimal scenery by Doug Fitch which leaves the stage almost empty and uses a very nouveau sort of couch for both Liza and the doctor’s offices. It also turns Dr. Brooks from a male role into a woman, here played by Amy Irving. This mitigates the patriarchal role of the psychiatrist somewhat but does not change the totally Freudian explanation of Liza’s problems. On the other hand, Irving seemed somewhat uncomfortable in this authoritarian role. Clark as the troubled Liza sang beautifully such jazzy Weill songs as “One Life to Live,” “The Princess of Pure Delight,” and the show’s most notable song, “The Saga of Jenny.” Even in tailored suits, she had trouble looking plain and was more successful in the musical dream sequences.
Ben Davis as the Hollywood film star Randy Curtis was suave and elegant and had a lovely moment with the unjustly forgotten song, “This Is New.” David Pittu (who also appeared in the 2009 The Firebrand of Florence along with Clark) handled three roles, Beekman, the chauffeur, the Ringmaster in the Circus Dream, and the very fey Russell Paxton, Allure magazine’s fashion photographer, the Danny Kaye role. He acquitted himself well singing the fast-paced patter song, “Tchaikovsky,” and received all of his laughs for Paxton’s putdowns.
Memphis star Montego Glover was delightful as Liza’s acerbic assistant Maggie Grant, an Eve Arden/Rosalind Russell role. In the rather thankless roles of art director Charley Johnson and publisher Kendall Nesbitt, Christopher Innvar and Ron Raines, respectively, do what they can to breathe life into these cardboard characters. Ashley Park, Tony nominated for her Gretchen Wieners in Mean Girls, is amusing as Liza’s impressionable secretary Miss Foster as well as her maid Sutton.
Choreographer Doug Varone has given the ballets in the dream sequences a modern look (with an homage to Balanchine, Agnes De Mille and Twyla Tharp) but stages each of the three ballets in quite a different style which makes them appear to be in three different shows. While the production stinted on the scenery, it made up for it with the costuming. Three fashion designers, one costume designer and one fashion house created the designs for this show about a fashion magazine.
The fashion costumes are knockouts as they should be: Zac Posen designed the Glamour Dream looks for Clark with Brooks Brothers supplying the tuxedos for the male dancers. Radio City Music Hall loaned the gowns for the female dancer. Marchesa provided the bridal gown for the Wedding Dream which mixes sex and death. The Circus Dream costumes for the principal actors and the jury were designed by Thom Browne, using bright colors and oversized patterns. The office clothing was the work of Tracy Christensen. The excellent 120 member chorus wore black formalwear for the first act and casual sportswear in bright colors in the second act which includes the circus sequence. While the costumes were in themselves attractive, it also made the musical stylistically inconsistent. James F. Ingalls’ lighting took the title literally and often had the stage in partial darkness.
Lady in the Dark is one of those legendary shows that one reads about but hardly ever gets a chance to experience for one’s self. While the MasterVoices concert staging was beautifully sung, with the able support of the Orchestra of St Luke’s, this is not a show that lends itself to being semi-staged due to its scenic and visual requirements. The production went all out in some respects, and cut back on others. The Freudian analysis seems dated now and rather clichéd at this vantage point almost 60 years since the script was written. Nevertheless, it is always a privilege to hear a complete Kurt Weill score particularly with lyrics this witty from Ira Gershwin and played this well.
Lady in the Dark (April 25 – 27, 2019)
New York City Center, 131 W. 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.nycitycenter.org
Running time: two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission