By Sarah Downs
About half way through Act I of Lady in the Dark at New York City Center, I began to wonder why I was both loving the performance and feeling disappointed. Gorgeous music, interesting book, good performances, but it was just not jelling. In a repeat procedure of giving with one hand and taking away with the other, this semi-staged production gave a rare glimpse of some of Weill’s best-known songs in their original context, but at the same time buried them in overlong, rudderless dream sequences. Act I in particular really began to drag. It did not help that, having devoted so much real estate to bleachers for the chorus, director and conductor Ted Sperling had left little room for much else. As a result the dancing felt cramped and sloppy, while the rest of the action remained oddly static.
The story is classic working woman vs. wife, a narrative our culture revisits in every decade, with varied results. Can a woman have both a successful career and true love? Lady in the Dark in 1931 or 1951 or 1961 would answer this question differently. The narrative twist in Lady in the Dark is Moss Hart’s bringing Freud into the mix. In 1941 this was daring indeed. Movies like Hitchcock’s Spellbound would bring psychoanalysis to a film audience, but as the subject matter for a musical?
Liza Elliott, a woman of a certain age has hit an unexpected crossroads. After an outburst at a meeting where she throws a paperweight at fellow editor and collapses in floods of tears Liza seeks the aid of a psychotherapist Dr. Brooks (Amy Irving). A childhood song has been begun to haunt her. She has become irrational. She cannot make decisions. In a whisper of homage to Dali, Liza reclines on a curved couch as she undergoes analysis. Liza recounts her dreams, which come to life in three extensive musical sequences in which she appears as an enchanted movie star (in a killer shimmering blue gown), a gorgeous bride marrying the man of her dreams, and a circus performer.
Victoria Clark as Liza Elliott is the perfect leading lady. Her voice shines, particularly in her upper register, but she also carries off songs like “Jenny” in her circus dream with pizzazz. Unfortunately that musical sequence drowns her out with flailing choreography and bright colors that overwhelm her lone figure. Clark brings elegance and tenderness to the deceptively difficult “My Ship,” one of the most beautiful songs in musical theater repertoire. At ease in fantasy Liza’s knockout ball gowns, Clark is nonetheless totally believable as real life Liza, a buttoned up anti-fashion fashion editor who has begun to unravel at the seams. This isn’t Anna Wintour; in an almost manic suppression of her looks Liza wears dark tweed suits and sensible shoes. (Freud speaks!)
After long years as the live-in partner to Kendall Nesbitt (Ron Raines) a man whose wife won’t give him a divorce, she is restless. As the stalwart Nesbitt, Raines conveys both gentleness and strength. He earnestly loves and is bewildered by the woman he thought he knew, and who indeed thought she knew herself. Enter dreamboat movie star Randy Curtis (Ben Davis). Tall, with just the right kind of good looks and classic musical theater voice, Davis suits perfectly. You can see why women swoon, but also why he doesn’t stick. He turns Liza’s head, complicating her life without offering any resolution. The third man in her immediate vicinity, and recipient of the infamous projectile paperweight, Charley Johnson doesn’t help matters. He rocks the boat. As Johnson, Christopher Invarr is excellent. He raises the stakes, injecting emotional coherence at key moments.
Ashley Jini Park, as Liza’s assistant, makes the most out of a small role, with an appealing soprano voice and flair for comedy. She charms without cloying. David Pittu saves the rather endless circus dream in his incarnation as campy circus barker. He delivers a devilish patter song comprised entirely of names of Russian composers with an aplomb Danny Kaye would envy.
In the end the banal choreography and slightly ragtag chorus undermine the quality of the production. The choristers sing very well together but display some inconsistency in their individual solos. By contrast the orchestra plays beautifully. Sperling draws out the lushness and drama in the music. With Kurt Weill you have to be in it to win it, and Sperling is definitely in it. However, to bring a narrative that was revolutionary in its time but less so in the modern-day to life, there are just so many choices to make, conflicts to resolve and layers to explore — too much to do justice to fully in this kind of setting. It is both provocative and frustrating. The answer hovers tantalizingly out of reach, awaiting its ship to bring it to shore.
Lady in the Dark, book by Moss Hart; music and lyrics by Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin; script adapted by Christopher Hart and Kim Kowalke. Starring Victoria Clark, Amy Irving, Ashley Park, Montego Glover, David Pittu, Christopher Innvar, Ben Davis and Ron Raines; featuring the Doug Varone Dancers and the MasterVoices Chorus. Directed and conducted by Ted Sperling, choreographed by Doug Varone, scenic design by Doug Fitch, costume design by Tracy Christensen, lighting design by James Ingalls, sound design by Scott Lehrer; gowns by Zac Posen and Marchesa; circus costumes by Thom Browne. At NY City Center (131 W 55th St.) through April 27th. Tickets: Priced from $30 to $140, may be purchased online at NYCityCenter.org, by calling 212.581.1212.