By Brian Scott Lipton
All musical theater connoisseurs owe a huge debt of gratitude to MasterVoices for shining a new light on Lady in the Dark, the rarely-seen 1941 musical by Kurt Weill, Ira Gershwin and Moss Hart, now in all-too-brief engagement at New York City Center. This thoroughly engaging and sometimes thrilling concert presentation, cleverly directed and conducted by Ted Sperling and starring a superb Victoria Clark as troubled fashion magazine editor Liza Elliott, is definitely worth catching; but it also illustrates why we’ll probably never see any major production again on the New York stage. (The last outing of any note was during Encores! inaugural season in 1994.)
Liza, long the ultra-successful editor of “Allure,” is suddenly in the midst of a nervous breakdown—unable to decide everything from which cover to choose for the magazine’s Easter issue to whether to marry longtime companion Kendal Nesbitt (an excellent Ron Raines), who’s finally agreed to divorce his wife after over a decade. In desperate straits, she turns to analysis with kindly psychiatrist Dr. Brooks (an earnest Amy Irving).
As skeptical and scared as Liza is, she magically finds the answer to her problems while recounting her vivid dreams (in which all the people in her daily life, including her officemates—well played by David Pittu, Christopher Innvar, Montego Glover and Ashley Park—pop up in other guises). In a nutshell, Liza learns she must learn to forget the nasty messages of her childhood and adolescence and accept the fact that she’s not only a beautiful woman, but that’s it’s okay to be a beautiful woman. (It’s a little more complicated than that, but not much.) Let’s just say the message doesn’t play all that well in 2019.
The book aside, there are manifold other issues—which are wonderfully solved here—that would stop commercial producers from tackling this piece today. First, its rather groundbreaking structure not only completely separates its book scenes from its musical numbers, something modern audiences might find odd. Moreover, only a couple of the show’s tunes, the ultra-witty “The Saga of Jenny” and the gorgeous, romantic “My Ship,” both sung to sheer perfection by Clark, have ever entered the popular repertory. Admittedly, though, there are other musical joys to be had, including the tongue-twisting “Tschaikovksy,” performed brilliantly by the scene-stealing Pittu, the operatic “This Is New,” beautifully done by the handsome Ben Davis, and the enchanting “Girl of the Moment.”
Secondly, the show—to be done truly well—requires both separate choruses of singers and dancers. Here, we’re blessed with the 120-piece MasterVoices chorus, whose harmonies are just spectacular (if a bit underused) and the electric Doug Varone Dancers, whose modern movements are simply marvelous and easily fill the vast City Center stage.
And thirdly, the show requires unusually lavish sets (mostly absent) and costumes, especially in the three major dream sequences. Luckily for us, they’ve been stunningly provided here Tracy Christensen, and equally importantly, a group of top-rate fashion designers, including Zac Posen, Thom Browne and Marchesa, all recruited by “Vogue” editor Hamish Bowles. (For the record, Posen’s sequined gown for Clark in the initial dream sequence redefines the word dreamy.)
I admit at the end of a non-stop month of Broadway shows, I had second thoughts about spending even one more evening in the dark. But (to quote Stephen Sondheim), I’m so glad I came—and you will be too!
Lady in the Dark. Through April 27 at New York City Center (131 West 55th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues). www.nycitycenter.org
Photos: Richard Termine