So it was that I came perilously close to missing the magnificent production of the Kurt Weill-Ira Gershwin-Moss Hart musical Lady in the Dark that is currently on view (through Sunday, October 21) at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia. This is a revival of the groundbreaking, 1941 show about Liza Elliot, the psychologically troubled editor of a fashion magazine. With the help of an analyst, Liza comes to realize that she has been unable to reconcile two aspects of her persona due to a series of childhood traumas: She perceives herself (and is perceived by others) as a smart, efficient, somewhat cold business executive, repressing her yearnings toward glamour and romance. Lady in the Dark has great historical significance because (1) psychoanalysis was bold subject matter for a musical in 1941; (2) the show is uniquely constructed as a straight play that is interrupted by musical dream sequences; and (3) the Weill/Gershwin score is as fresh and original as Hart's book. Oh, and (4) the original production further solidified the American stardom of its leading lady, the legendary Gertude Lawrence, and created a new star in Danny Kaye.
Stagings of the show are extremely rare these days, partly because its book scenes are a bit overwritten, but even more so because Liza's predicament can be viewed as anti-feminist if the show is not skillfully directed and performed. Lady was given a lackluster presentation by the City Center Encores! series a few years ago, starring a somewhat miscast Christine Ebersole. (How incredible would Julie Andrews have been in this role back in the day? As it is, we'll have to be content with her performances of "My Ship" and "The Saga of Jenny" in the Gertude Lawrence bioflick Star! and her recording of "This Is New" on a Columbia album made early in her career.)
The Prince production doesn't have Andrews, but it does have Andrea Marcovicci, who would seem to have found the musical theater role of her career in Liza. Even more importantly, the show has been put together brilliantly (no exaggeration) by director Ted Sperling, choreographer Robert La Fosse, musical director Rob Berman, scenic designer James Schuette, costume designer David Belugou, and lighting designer James F. Ingalls. I loved the production, as did everyone I've spoken to who's seen it. But I'm no Lady in the Dark expert, so I have obtained a testimonial from one of the show's true enthusiasts: my friend Bob Gutowski, with whom I attended last weekend as part of a small group.
Says Bob: "I was impressed by how psychologically apt a production it is as compared to the recent Follies revival on Broadway, for example. I'm talking about the staging and, especially, the choreography. There's a clear point of view to the choreography that's often lacking these days. I felt as though La Fosse had decided on a very definite look; it isn't generic show dancing, and it really helps to illuminate the story. Because so much of the Encores! production was bare bones, as they all are, the book scenes couldn't really draw you into Liza's problem. The Prince production definitely draws you in, even though they've trimmed the script quite a bit."
Does this Lady strike Bob as dated in any way? "I think it works wonderfully, especially since they decided to change the sex of Liza's psychiatrist from male to female," he says. "There's a real sense of joy at the end, when Liza finds herself. There also seems to be a real love for the show and no condescension toward it on the part of the creative team and the cast; you can see that on stage. I think it's just grand."
Perhaps the ultimate proof of Bob's admiration for the Prince's Lady in the Dark is that he's paying to see it again this weekend, just before it closes. Perhaps you should join him: I'm told by a spokesman at the theater that there are no current plans to move the production elsewhere, which is a pity. If you can score a ticket and can make it down to Philly in the next few days, do so, by all means. Phone 215-569-9700 for information, or visit the website at www.princemusictheater.org