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San Francisco by Richard Connema

Marin Theatre Presents Lady in the Dark

Also see Richard's recent review of Snake in the Fridge


The Marin Theatre, in association with the Allegro Theatre, opened their season with Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin's musical Lady in the Dark on Tuesday, November 13. This is the first time the West Coast has seen this production since 1943. It is rarely performed because it is very difficult to stage. Also, Kitty Carlisle Hart, wife of Moss Hart who wrote the book, has kept a tight hold on the rights to the musical.

I first saw the original production in New York In 1942. I was just a high school kid on summer break when I was taken to see the musical starring Gertrude Lawrence, Danny Kaye, Macdonald Carey and Victor Mature. After that experience, I fell in love with musical theater. In my mind's eye, it has always been a dream musical. I learned every note of Mr. Weill's music, every word of Mr. Gershwin's lyrics. I even, ham that I am, sang "The Saga of Jenny", "My Ship" and "This is New" to "entertain" (I use that word loosely) the family when I was young. My very first meeting with a celebrity was with Gertrude Lawrence, first in New York and later when she was on the road with the musical in Columbus, Ohio.

Over the years I have seen Ginger Rodgers, Rise Stevens, Ann Southern and Maria Friedman play Liza Elliott. I feel that I know Ms. Elliott well. The story centers around Liza, a fashion magazine editor who is suppose to be elegant, sophisticated, successful and miserable. She is having an affair with the magazine's owner Kendall Nesbitt, fighting with her ad director Charley Johnson, possibly having an affair with pretty boy movie star Randy Curtis, and perplexing her staff by her inability to make up her mind on an upcoming cover of the magazine. Liza has many revealing dreams and seeks the help of Dr. Brooks, a noted psychiatrist. With his help she uncovers the memory of a haunting childhood song and the freedom to pursue the man she loves.

Lady in the Dark had a three year run on Broadway plus a highly successful tour of the States and was made into a movie at Paramount with Ginger Rogers, Ray Milland and Mischa Auer. The studio threw out most of the wonderful score and the film was not a success. The musical then made an appearance on TV in an NBC spectacular with Ann Southern, James Daly and Carlton Carpenter in lead roles.

The musical was very innovative in 1941, with all of the music in four dream sequences, with the exception of "My Ship" which was partially sung at the end of the show. It was also the first time that psychoanalysis was presented theatrically. It set the trend for highly sophisticated musicals.

As a regional show, the Marin Theatre production should not be fully compared with the original or the London revival starring Maria Friedman. I found many high points and only a few low points in this production. Marsha Merchant is superb as Liza Elliott. She plays it entirely differently from Ms. Lawrence, Ms. Rogers and Ms. Southern. Marsha is more businesslike, not so glamorous; she is a more "natural" person who could be an editor of a woman's fashion magazine. Marsha shines in the songs "The Saga of Jenny", "This Is New" and "My Ship". She does splendid renditions of these classic songs.

Danny Scheie, as gay photographer Russell Paxton, steals the show, and he makes the non-musical, realistic scenes stand out. He is very good in the comedy song "Tschaikowsky." In this production, the song feels sort of slipped in while it was a show stopper in other productions. I think the mike system had something to do with this on opening night since the words were not coming across well. Generally it gets a big hand and opening night it did not.

Twenty-three year old Patrick Leveque plays movie star Randy Curtis. Leveque is an up and coming musical comedy actor and he exhibits great charm across the footlights. He has an outstanding voice and the lyrics come out clear and bright. His rendition of "This Is New" with Marsha is one of the high points of the show.

I can't forget Billy Philadelphia, the musical director for this production. He gets a full orchestra sound from his small band of musicians and he makes Kurt Weill's original music thrilling. He also makes sure that the Gershwin lyrics are heard throughout the theater. The score and lyrics are classic. Gershwin's words are urbane and witty and the three songs that I have mentioned are classics in their own right. Kurt Weill's melodies are haunting in many of the songs and the wonderful beat of the music in the dream sequences is priceless. The songs effortlessly flow right into each other without missing a beat. Even the simple tune of "Princess of Pure Delight" is a delight.

There are a few low spots, athough nothing disastrous. Moss Hart's book really cries for a rewrite. It needs to be re-arranged and cut for today's audiences. It does not stand up to the minds of the 21st century, but Ms. Hart says not one scene nor one word of dialogue may be changed. It must be the same as presented in 1941. Even the timing between the characters in the non-musical scenes is off. There are long pauses between sections of dialogue. The way the musical is fashioned just will not suite modern audiences, with long and somewhat boring non-musical scenes followed by exciting dream musical scenes.

The choreography is a little rough on the edges; these young actors are really not dancers. They are good singers but the choreography is very confused with the group going all over the stage in strange directions. I think more experienced dancers are needed to give it a sophisticated look. However, this might improve with time.

The only miscasting I could see is Martin Lewis as the owner of the magazine. I am not taking anything away from this talented young man since he is the best dancer in the group and he has done some very fine work in the past. However he is just too young to be Liza's lover. Kendall Nesbitt should be played by a man in his 50s. Also, Livia Genise, one of our better musical actresses, is wasted in her small role as Alison DuBois. They gave her an outlandish costume and wig, and the result is almost a parody of the woman.

Lee Sankowich does a creditable job as director of the play even through the non-musical scenes seem to lag. However, since he could not touch one line of the old fashioned dialogue, it may just be the book. What a difference timing-wise from his work in Moving Bodies.

Sets by Jamie Greenleaf are minimal and they use very few props, mostly box type items that can be slid in and out. There are large white satin sheet panels in the background that roll up and down for the dancers. Projections are thrown on these sheets to add color.

All in all, I recommend the musical if only to listen to the glorious music of Mr. Weill and the smart lyrics of Mr. Gershwin and to see Marsha Merchant as Liza.

Lady in the Dark has been extended until December 9th. Tickets range from $24 to $40 and there are senior and full-time students discounts for certain performances. The Marin Theatre Company is at 397 Miller Ave, Mill Valley. Call (415)388-5208 for tickets or go online at www.marintheatre.org

The next production at Marin will be Jeffrey Hatcher's Sockdology, which is a fresh and often funny back stage look at the night Lincoln was shot.




Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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