Lady in the Dark
Rare opportunity to see the fully staged "Lady in the Dark," the legendary musical by Moss Hart, Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weill which made stars of Danny Kaye, Victor Mature and Macdonald Carey and confirmed Gertrude Lawrence as the top singing actress in musical theater.
The Bronx Opera Company has attempted something that no other New York theater company has ever done: a fully-staged revival of the legendary Moss Hart-Ira Gershwin-Kurt Weill musical Lady in the Dark. A smash hit when first produced on Broadway in 1941, this was the first musical about a woman undergoing analysis, with its Weill/Gershwin songs only appearing in the dream sequences. It made stars of Danny Kaye, Victor Mature and Macdonald Carey and confirmed Gertrude Lawrence as heroine Liza Elliott the top singing actress in musical theatre. Stephen Sondheim’s Follies with its “Loveland” sequence, a mini-Ziegfeld Follies, is a more recent descendant.
As the Kurt Weill and Moss Hart estates were notoriously difficult about giving out the rights to this famous but unseen show, the only New York presentations until now have been the New York City Center Encores! semi-staged concert in 1994 with Christine Ebersole and the MasterVoices concert staging in 2019 with Victoria Clark, also at City Center. It is a shame that so many years have gone by as Moss Hart’s book with its Freudian view of psychoanalysis has dated badly. The MasterVoices version used a new revised book by Hart’s son Christopher, but the Bronx Opera version only appears to have been somewhat edited and shortened the show with minor characters dropped.
Unfortunately, this is musical comedy and does not need operatic voices, Lawrence being famously a singer with a very small range, while Kaye came from cabaret and night club. With all of the leads double cast, Sunday matinee’s singers seemed either miscast or poorly directed by Eric Lamp and Benjamin Spierman. Matthew Imhoff’s sets which are carried on and off by the singers took an inordinately long time and there were moments of dead time during office scenes which also seemed underpopulated. While conductor and artistic director Michael Spierman gave a creditable performance of the complete score, it did not seem to hang together but felt like individual numbers, unlike many other Weill scores which feel integrated and whole.
Lady in the Dark was inspired by Moss Hart’s psychoanalysis under famed therapist Dr. Lawrence S. Kubie who also treated Tennessee Williams, Leonard Bernstein, Kurt Weill and Sid Caesar. In the heroine having to choose between three men, it was also inspired by his reading of Freud’s essay “The Theme of the Three Caskets.” The original impetus for the earlier play version called I Am Listening was to create a role for Katharine Cornell, one of the great ladies of the American stage. Liza Elliott, prim and proper editor of Allure, a successful fashion magazine appears to be on top of the world with a high-powered job and Kendall Nesbitt, a millionaire boyfriend. However, she is on the verge of a nervous breakdown precipitated by not being able to decide about the circus cover for the April issue.
First visiting Dr. Brooks (here played by a woman as in the MasterVoices version), Liza is asked to recount her dreams. In her first session, she tells of her recurring “Glamour Dream” where she is the toast of the town for her chic and beauty, unlike in her real life. Her second “Wedding Dream” is brought on by her married boyfriend Kendall obtaining his wife’s word that she will finally give him a divorce but now Liza is not sure she wants to marry him, plus Liza’s being asked out to dinner by Hollywood movie star Randy Curtis whom the magazine is featuring in a fashion spread.
In a waking dream, Liza imagines she is put on trial in a circus for not making up her mind. Russell Paxton, her staff photographer, appears as the ringmaster, Charley Johnson, her advertising manager who is after her job plays the prosecutor, and Randy Curtis, for whom she can do no wrong, plays the defense attorney, with Nesbitt as the key witness. In a final session with Dr. Brooks, Liza recalls scenes from her childhood and comes face to face with the problems that have beset her all her life.
Alternating with her visits to Dr. Brooks are scenes in Liza’s office when she is surrounded by the chaos caused by Maggie Grant, her acerbic fashion editor, Alison du Bois, her irresponsible columnist, high-strung photographer Russell, and arrogant and insolent advertising manager Charley who just happens to be the best in the business. At the end of her therapy, Liza comes to terms with all of these people and problems when she is able to remember all the words to the song “My Ship” which has haunted her throughout her adult life. The second act “Circus Dream” also includes the show’s two most famous songs: Gershwin’s tongue twister “Tchaikovsky” written for Danny Kaye and “The Saga of Jenny” written to give Lawrence an eleven o’clock showstopper.
In Sunday’s cast many of the performers seemed too young for their roles, both as to experience and technique. As Liza Elliott, mezzo-soprano Perri di Christina was not convincing as the quintessential boss lady from the 1940’s. Her voice was simply too high for the simple songs written for Gertrude Lawrence. As an actress she made too many hand gestures to represent a highly successful executive and seemed more neurotic than the character warranted. Playing Dr. Brooks, Leslie Swanson was overdramatic rather than calm and collected. Playing the doctor as a woman mitigates the patriarchal role of the psychiatrist somewhat but does not change the totally Freudian explanation of Liza’s problems.
Miguel Pedroza playing Hollywood film star Randy Curtis was suitably tall in the way of cowboy actors but was much too stiff to be the suave romantic star of films. In the Danny Kaye role playing Russell Paxton, the photographer, chauffeur Beekman in the Glamour Dream, and the Ringmaster in the Circus Dream, Vince Gomer was extremely flamboyant and did not quite do justice to Kaye’s famed 39 second rendition of “Tchaikovsky” in which he rattles off the names of 50 Russian composers. Wil Kellerman as Charley Johnson, Liza’s arrogant advertising manager who gets fired and rehired in the course of the show, was played as a bit too fey to be the tower of strength that he is for Liza.
Samantha Lax was amusing as fashion editor Maggie Grant but like Sarah Marguerite Lally’s amoral Alison du Bois, columnist at Allure, was too scattered in her approach to this Eve Arden/Rosalind Russell role. As Kendall Nesbitt, publisher of Allure and Liza’s longtime boyfriend, Benjamin Hoyer was simply too bland to have held Liza’s attention all these years. The role of Miss Foster, Liza’s secretary, and also her maid Sutton in the “Glamour Dream” appeared to be watered down so that Erin Rose made little impression.
To augment the rather minimal office setting, designer Imhoff came up with a series of fabulous Allure covers which were projected two stories high behind the set. However, this caused the viewer to continually be looking upward rather than focus on the events on stage. The four very different paintings that appeared when Liza has her portrait painted in the “Glamour Dream” missed the point that it was supposed make her look plain. The all-red doctor’s office seems too provocative and having Dr. Brooks wear matching red outfits seemed a conscious mistake. Anthony Paul-Cavaretta’s 1940’s style costumes did not look flattering for Liza and film star Randy Curtis’ suits did not fit very well considering we are told he is America’s biggest box office attraction. However, the costumes for the ensemble were completely satisfactory. Imhoff’s lighting was utilitarian but failed to be atmospheric in any of the sequences.
The Bronx Opera is to be complimented for taking on this difficult and ambitious musical whose cost it has been said would be prohibitive for Broadway these days. This is a rare opportunity for theatergoers to see one of the theaters’ great hits which ran 777 performances in its original run and national tour making it one of the longest running shows of the 1940’s before the advent of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Unfortunately, this production will probably not revive the show’s faded reputation. However, it is a privilege to get to hear this rarely performed and innovative Kurt Weill score to the witty lyrics of Ira Gershwin. This production does make it clear that Lady in the Dark is most likely the first concept musical, preceding Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro (1947) and the Kurt Weill/Alan Jay Lerner Love Life (1948) which are often named as candidates.
Lady in the Dark (Jan. 28-29 and Feb. 4-5, 2023)
Lovinger Theatre, Lehman College, 250 Bedford Park Blvd. West, in the Bronx
For tickets, visit http://www.Our.Show/BxOLady2023
Running time: two hours and 50 minutes including one intermission
I was interested to read Mr. Gluck’s thoughtful review, but I am sorry that the Bronx Opera production was more a notable effort than a great show.
LADY IN THE DARK needs a powerful performer for Liza Elliot – not brilliant singing nor dancing, but the ability of the actress to keep and maintain a spotlight and shift quickly from the various emotions that Liza shows in the alternating reality and dream scenes that make up the progress of the show. A very good director is essential.
Also, I understood from reading Bruce D. McClung’s book LADY IN THE DARK: BIOGRAPHY OF A MUSICAL, the staging should not allow the action to have any pauses or gaps. The original production actually created a sensation by its movielike flow which used rotating tables to move and combine the sets as well as a body double at crucial moments to allow Liza Elliot to be seen multiple places almost simultaneously, e.g.: crying with her face covered while taunted by a jeering crowd at the crisis of her Glamour dream, Eliza suddenly appears back in Dr. Brook’s office, lying on the sofa and dressed as she was originally, before the other scene had fully blacked out. (This doubling was also done in the live 1954 TV version starting Ann Southern – you can even hear her running as she leaves the dream scene to get back to the analyst’s couch.)
There was a show called Musical Comedy Tonight hosted by Sylvia Fine
They do an excerpt from Lady in the Dark with Lynn Redgrave, Richard Crenna and Danny Kaye reprising his role
Lots of delights on those shows