A lot has been made of the parallels between the original 1938 production of I Married an Angel for which George Balanchine choreographed the dances for his soon-to-be wife, the glamorous Norwegian ballerina Vera Zorina and the New York City Center Encores! production for which its choreographer/director Joshua Bergasse staged the dances for his wife, the New York City Ballet star Sara Mearns.
This is great publicity and drew the public, including myself, to this staging of one of Rodgers and Hart’s more charming musicals known mostly through a Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy film. The original choreography is evidenced only via some silent film snippets taken of the original production.
The Bergasse helmed I Married an Angel had many pleasures including a score that contains several R&H classics and an escapist plot that takes the audience to a fantasy Budapest made even more fantastical by the elegant sets of Allen Moyer and colorful vintage-looking costumes by Alejo Vietti.
Because it was written in 1938 the libretto, adapted by Rodgers and Hart from a play by Janos Vaszary, has many notions about men and women and romance that are dated, even borderline offensive, including the main plot device by which the main character, banker Count Willy Palaffi (Mark Evans, more earnest than passionate, but with a charming voice) will only consider marrying an angel, meaning a woman of unearthly purity, an attitude considered hypocritical even in the thirties. He gets his wish when the Angel (aka Brigitte) (Mearns, a beautiful dancer with a childlike voice) descends, spreading romance and trouble in equal measure.
The romance between Willy and Brigitte is intertwined with a secondary plot concerning Willy’s bank which is about to go under unless he can get a loan from Harry Szigetti (Tom Robbins, milking his comic role for all it’s worth).
Unfortunately, Brigitte’s lack of tact—including a built-in heavenly need to always tell the truth—sabotages the loan while also managing to alienate all of Willy’s biggest depositors, including the Duchess of Holstein-Kuloff (what names!) played by Ann Harada in an expert comic, non-singing turn, nearly stopping the show.
Peter Mueller was Willy’s loyal second in command at the bank (Phillip Attmore, a terrific singer and fantastic tap dancer). Attmore was at his peak dancing with the sassy Hayley Podschun who plays Anna Murphy, an American who is on the prowl for love affairs. Their show-stopping number was “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”
Anna is a friend of Willy’s temptress sister, the Countess Peggy Palaffi played and sung with panache by the wonderful Nikki M. James. The Countess has a past connection with Szigetti which leads to their light-hearted duet “I’ll Tell the Man in the Street,” which became newly popular when a young Barbra Streisand turned it into a sweet ballad on one of her early recordings.
There’s a lot of dancing in I Married an Angel including the aforementioned “How to Win Friends” plus the Angel’s bizarre “Othello: A Surrealist Ballet,” which didn’t have any obvious Shakespeare connection but showed off Mearns’ terpsichorean talents and the huge production number to the witty “At the Roxy Music Hall.” First sung by Ms. Podschun to tempt the Angel and Willy to visit New York City, “Music Hall” pulled out all the stops with ballet, vaudeville shtick and silly mime. Even though it was totally superfluous to the plot, it was entertainingly constructed by Bergasse.
The trouble with this Encores! staging was that Mearns, a sensationally charismatic ballerina, doesn’t yet have the acting chops to carry off the title character. She’s lovely and agile but is even outshone by the bevy of her sister angels who descend to help her (“Angels Without Wings”).
Nevertheless it’s hard to be hard on a musical which contains such standards as “Spring is Here,” the sassy “A Twinkle in Your Eye,” the aforementioned “I’ll Tell the Man in the Street” and the pretty title song (which may have been reprised one too many times).
Bergasse’s direction and choreography had some brilliant, witty moments, but the ballet vocabulary began to fail him as the show progressed. Bergasse did assemble a nimble cast of singing dancers who were brilliant considering the shortness of their rehearsal period.
The lighting by Jeff Croiter was glittering as was the playing of The Encores! Orchestra under the baton of the Encores! stalwart guest music director Rob Fisher, using the original arrangements by Hans Spialek which featured, of course, lots of harp solos played with heavenly grace by Susan Jolles.
I Married an Angel (March 20-24, 2019)
New York City Center Encores!
New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.NYCityCenter.org
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes including one intermission