Delightful, Grand Scale Revival of Moss Hart's 1948
Also see Bob's reviews of Newsies
If anyone knew the legendary chaos and aggravation of opening a new show on the road in preparation for Broadway, it was Moss Hart. Between 1930 and 1948, Moss Hart authored, co-authored, and/or directed two dozen Broadway plays, musicals and revues. So in 1948, when he turned to writing a new comedy, Hart gratifyingly set it in a luxurious suite at Boston's Ritz-Carlton Hotel where a full cross section of Broadway egotistsproducer, director, writer, actors, and members of their coteriegather on the out of town opening night of their new show. The resulting play was the 212 performance Broadway success Light Up the Sky, which is currently enjoying a loving, grand scale revival at Hackettstown's Centenary Stage.
Moss Hart was famously a master of play construction. It is very satisfying to see how skillfully each act is a full and rounded scene with an effective curtain which either perfectly sets up the following act (acts one and two) or resolves matters with an explanation point, despite the lack of a final verdict as to the ultimate fate of the Broadway bound tryout (act three).
The first act is set in the late afternoon before the opening night curtain. We find ourselves among, for the most part, a group of hypocritical, self-loving, deluded narcissists who preen about the suite further puffing up one another's already overinflated ego. Leading the parade is the new play's pompous director, Carleton Fitzgerald. His florid and effusive praise for the play and its author include his recurrent observation that the beauty of their play repeatedly sends him into paroxysms of tears. Fitzgerald is said to be based on Guthrie McClintic, producer-director for most of the plays performed on Broadway by his wife (both were actually gay, according to theatre historians), Katharine Cornell. Nearly as pretentious in his own way is the play's producer, Sidney Black, an unlettered, tough guy from the streets of New York who, through shrewd and lucky investments, intuitive smarts and the art of hustling, has acquired wealth and his wife Frances, an Olympic ice skating champion who successfully tours in ice shows produced by her husband. Sidney, who clearly is ashamed of his lowly background and dubious path to success, seeks to validate himself as a man of culture by producing this play. His Frances is a vacuous airhead whose principal activity is shopping for clothes. Sidney and Frances are modeled after the famed producer Billy Rose and his wife Eleanor Holm, who was an Olympic swimming champion. Holm appeared in touring shows which Rose produced. Irene Livingston, the pampered and temperamental star of the show continues to be in the bedroom where she is getting an extended massage. As long as all is well and everyone pays her court, Irene will be fine, but should something go wrong, and we know it will, she may well develop a case of laryngitis and be off to greener pastures. Irene is thought to have been based on the famed Gertrude Lawrence. Does it matter that there are few of us who remember these once reigning theatre heavyweights who are being satirized? Not really. After all, they are archetypes which have long been and will continue to be with us, The newcomer playwright, Peter Sloane, is a pure idealist. He will quickly learn that, despite all the praise and love that he has received from his colleagues, that they are self protective sharks who will do any and everything, and, to protect and promote themselves. His play sounds like a dreadful apocalyptic allegory. At least as it is described by Stella.
Act two is set late at night after the opening when our crew returns to the Ritz-Carlton, and recounts the horrendous disaster that was the opening night performance of their play. You will want to be there when the gloves come off. Act three is set a few hours later, early in the morning, as the reviews begin to arrive with the morning papers, and the theatre folk re-gather themselves in order to plow on.
The outstanding performances of the evening are the work of Kirsten Hopkins and Mikaela Kafka, as the temperamental Irene Livingston and her mother Stella, respectively. Kirsten Hopkins pulls off the difficult task of demonstrating for us the poise, flair and vigorous spirit that sets off a true stage star whose peccadilloes must be accepted (or, at least, to which attention must be paid). As the wisecracking, interfering manager-mother, Kafka is adroit at creating that featured comic character whose role exists solely to inflate the laugh meter. Whether she is telling about sneaking into a closed dress rehearsal by disguising herself as a cleaning lady, uncannily beating Frances at Gin Rummy, or forewarning of the utter disaster with which they are stuck, Kafka repeatedly raises the comic ante.
Eli Ganias is a likeable and believable Stanley Black. He bears more than a passing bit of resemblance to Billy Rose. Liz Zazzi is hilariously bubble headed as his Frances. Zazzi's Frances doesn't really understand much about what is going on other than coming to realize that her own money which she insisted on investing in the play is in risk of going down the drain. Moss Hart seems to take especial pleasure in skewering the pompous Fitzgerald, and David Edwards manages to capture the hilarity in the role in a droll, not too far over the top portrayal.
Michael Irvin Pollard makes a strong, steadying contribution to the proceedings in the role of Owen Turner, a successful veteran playwright who has passed the idealist stage and learned to make his peace with the frenzied crazies of the theatre. Owen says that he has become one of them. We don't see this, but, after all, here he is just a kibitzer, not out there with his own play. John Little as Tyler Rayburn, Irene's taciturn husband, neatly avoids the chaos, opting to go to Oklahoma! on opening night. Kathleen O'Mara provides a likeably light touch at the top of the play as a typist (who dispenses necessary information to set up the balance of the play). Emilio Tirri is solid as the idealistic Peter Sloane.
Carl Wallnau has directed adeptly, maintaining a fast pace without losing any of the comedy's nuances, and eliciting a smooth ensemble performance from his cast.
An unusually large contribution is made by the large, richly detailed, beautifully designed two-level set complete with a grand piano which I must assume recreates or embellishes upon a 1940s suite at the Boston Ritz-Carlton. It is too complex to describe in detail with its paintings, complex wallpaper design and matching drapes. However, it solidifies the feeling that we are watching an authentic large scale revival of a full and satisfying, old fashioned idiomatic comedy about the New York/Broadway/American theatre.
As I watched Light Up the Sky, I had the thought that it may have been designed for an audience to see through Peter Sloane's eyes; that Peter might be the fresh outsider observing despoiled theatre veterans. However, as the play progressed, I realized that the idealistic writer was young and foolish; unrealistic. It now seems apparent to me that our eyes to the play are those of the older playwright Owen Turner. In fact, as the director suggests in a program note, that Turner is likely patterned after Moss Hart himself. That, at some level, the audience, in their role as patrons of the theatre, are collaborating with its often fragile, frantic and frenzied artists. And that, despite whatever shortcomings they may have, artists and producers are, much like the overreaching Sidney Black, out on a dangerous high wire, risking so very much in valiant efforts to set off some firecrackers and Light Up the Sky.
Light Up the Sky continues performances (Evenings: Thursday 7:30/ Friday & Saturday 8 PM/ Sunday 2 PM) at Centenary Stage Company (Sitnik Theatre) through October 16 at the Lackland Center on the campus of Centenary College, 400 Jefferson Avenue, Hackettstown, New Jersey 07840. Box Office: 908-9794297; online: www.centenarystageco.org.
Light Up the Sky by Moss Hart; directed by Carl Wallnau