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I Married an Angel Is the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt of 1938 — and Not in a Good Way

An 81-year-old Rodgers and Hart musical is revived by Encores!, and leaves us wondering why.

Sara Mearns (center) in I Married an Angel at New York City Center.
(© Joan Marcus)

It's hard to fault New York City Center Encores! for programming a show like I Married an Angel, a Rodgers and Hart musical from 1938. Not seen on Broadway since its premiere 81 years ago, its most recent New York production, as far as I can tell, was off-off-Broadway in 2000. It's one of the rare shows Encores! has done in recent memory that actually falls in line with the company's original mission: to stage long-forgotten musicals with their original orchestrations.

But sometimes, there are shows that don't get revived for a reason. I Married an Angel is one of those. Even with a newly adapted script by writers Sandy Rustin and Sarah Saltzberg, this dated, mind-boggling musical is far too outmoded in its attitudes toward women, despite a game company led by Broadway vet Mark Evans and New York City Ballet principal dancer Sara Mearns.

The plot, in brief, is this: Count Willy Palaffi (the debonair Evans) is a wealthy banker in Budapest. Never married, he is dissatisfied with the culture of taking women on as mistresses, and despite efforts by his sister, Countess Peggy Palaffi (Nikki M. James, straining vocally), to find him a bride, Willy only wants, basically, someone with…virtue. An angel, if you will. When sweet, naive Brigitta (Mearns) flies in through the window, Willy marries her on the spot. Complications, of course, ensue. Brigitta — mostly referred to as Angel — doesn't understand why she loses her wings after her first conjugal experience with Willy. And she somehow manages to alienate all of Willy's wealthy bankers, causing a run on the bank. With Willy about to go broke, it's up to Countess Peggy to teach Angel how to behave like a woman.

Originally directed and choreographed by George Balanchine, I Married an Angel was mostly a vehicle for his fiancée, ballet dancer Vera Zorina. Encores! harks back to that model here, with Mearns making her theatrical debut in the title role, and her husband, Tony nominee Joshua Bergasse, overseeing the production. The role is a change of pace for Mearns, who is known for more serious fare over at Lincoln Center, but what a delight she is as the Angel, bringing a sweet air of Kimmy Schmidt-style naïveté to an intensely difficult role to pull off. Also, she spends the entire production walking en pointe, which is impressive in and of itself.

The rest of the company is a mixed bag, with costars Hayley Podschun and Phillip Attmore stealing the spotlight whenever they're onstage, and leading a tremendous first-act tap number that I could have watched over and over. In a relatively insignificant role, Ann Harada manages to steal the show at the end with the perfectly hilarious delivery of a single line.

Good performances can only take a show so far, though. On one hand, it's interesting to see something like this, where the dialogue and topical references are so of a different era, to examine how far we've come socially over the past eight decades. On the other, producing a show that passes such extreme judgment on female behavior — and particularly places them into categories of naive, shrewish, or wanton — isn't a good idea now. The show is so out of touch with our current world that it's shocking, and because Bergasse's production plays it straight, it's hard to forgive dialogue that compares "a woman without love" to "an angel without wings," and even harder to forgive an "around the world" ballet, where there's only one dancer of Asian descent in an Asian dance sequence.

If this truly were a lost gem, with a score entirely of standards that we hadn't heard in years, it might be a little easier to take, but without that, I Married an Angel ought to be annulled.

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