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Lady in the Dark

Also see Sharon's review of Fully Committed

Musical Theatre Guild’s one-night only concert staged reading production of Lady in the Dark makes a strong argument for concert readings in general. Lady in the Dark has some wonderful songs that should be seen in context, but there’s so much that is problematic about the show, it is unlikely we’ll be seeing a full-scale revival anytime soon.

The show isn’t so much a musical as a play with three lengthy musical sequences built into it. The play, by Moss Hart, is the story of a woman who chooses to undergo psychoanalysis after an uncharacteristic outburst at work. The plot is uncomfortably dated. The doctor’s early diagnosis of Liza is that several of her problems requiring investigation include her refusal to wear make-up and her unusual desire to dress like a businesswoman rather than a glamour gal. That the ultimate resolution of her problems requires Liza to stop being so tough and turn some of her work over to a man is the sort of thing that won’t fly very well now, nearly 65 years after the show first opened. If Lady in the Dark didn’t have songs at all, it would be a hopelessly dated, routine play about a woman’s journey toward getting in touch with her repressed feminine side. And because Lady in the Dark’s songs aren’t well integrated into the script, the show has long stretches of book scenes that simply fail to connect with a modern audience.

But it does have music (“three little one-act operas,” as Kurt Weill described them), dream sequences in which we journey into Liza’s subconscious. The best is the final one, the “Circus Dream,” in which the delightful list song “Tchaikovksy” appears for no reason (except that a surreal circus ringmaster might well choose to rattle off a lengthy list of Russian composers) and is immediately followed by the show’s best-known number, “The Saga of Jenny.” It is wonderful to finally hear these Kurt Weill/Ira Gershwin songs in context. And, having been given the freedom of dream sequences, Gershwin has written some brilliantly funny lyrics that deserve to be heard.

Musical Theatre Guild’s production is solid enough to put the show across, with a few performances generating a spark. Eileen Barnett had the power and range to sing Liza’s songs (and, impressively, she went off-book for all of them), but her speaking voice promised a lovely color that was sadly missing from her singing voice. Doug Ballard got laughs as Dr. Brooks, with his dead-pan delivery of standard psychoanalyst questions. As the Ringmaster, Richard Israel was good enough at “Tchaikovsky” to make you think that, had he had more preparation time, he might have been able to pull off an even faster version, and he also got laughs in his book scenes as a fashion photographer. Full marks also to Damon Kirsche. At first it seemed he was misplaying the role of a movie star enamored of Liza, but it ultimately turned out that his performance was absolutely right for the script. What had seemed wrong with his portrayal was really something wrong with the character, and for Kirsche to convey that so clearly was remarkable.

For all its flaws, Lady in the Dark is a musical that shouldn’t be completely forgotten. Musical Theatre Guild should be applauded for a concert staged reading that fairly displayed the strengths and weaknesses of the show.

Lady in the Dark. Book by Moss Hart; Lyrics by Ira Gershwin; Music by Kurt Weill. Directed by Michael Michetti; Musical Direction by Darryl Archibald; Choreography by Lee Martino. Produced by Kevin McMahon and Stuart Fine. Wardrobe Designer Shon LeBlanc; Stage Manager Emily F. McMullen; Production Manager Vernon Willet; Stage Manager Intern Meg Friedman.

Cast:
Dr. Brooks - Doug Ballard
Liza Elliott - Eileen Barnett
Miss Stevens - Shauna Markey
Miss Foster - Kristi Holden
Russell Paxton - Richard Israel
Kendal Nesbitt - James Gleason
Charley Johnson - Gordon Goodman
Randy Curtis - Damon Kirsche
Maggie Grant - Mary Van Arsdel
Alison Du Bois - Maura M. Knowles
Ensemble - Chuck Bergman, Michael Dalager, Joshua Finkel, Scott Harlan, William Martinez, Jennifer Shelton, Virginia Weber.

Lady in the Dark played March 29, 2004 at the Alex Theatre in Glendale. For future shows, see www.musicaltheatreguild.com


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Sharon Perlmutter




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