Irving — Ah, those sweet-tart Kurt Weill tones—mellow one minute and jabbing your ears the next; atonal, lyrical, jazzy, bluesy, swinging, marching…and sometimes all of that together.
Lyric Stage is taking the newly restored Lady in the Dark out for its first spin onstage—and as test-drives go, this one’s a joy. It’s taken years for the music mavens to restore Weill’s 1941 Broadway hit to its original form. Lyric Stage was hand-picked to premiere it, and it’s a labor of love (and reverse engineering) you’ll want to catch while you can.
Lady in the Dark gleams with the genius of Weill’s endlessly inventive music, which weaves itself so tightly to Ira Gershwin’s practically perfect lyrics we can’t begin to divide the glory. And if Moss Hart’s script feels a bit dated in a way the music doesn’t, it still has some punch, with the kind of wisecracking earnestness found in ‘40s stage plays and films.
Lyric Stage’s 30 musicians blaze away under music director and conductor Jay Dias’ baton, and the chance to hear Weill’s original orchestrations is “pure delight,” to borrow from one of the songs. The show has a remarkable structure: no overture (or not until the second act, anyway), and dramatic scenes with virtually no music at all. But there’s a surfeit of melody and color once we get to the land of dreams—and Weill built it all, amazingly, on a three-note theme that’s the key to what conductor Dias called a psychological “detective piece.” [See our interview with conductor Dias here.]
Liza Elliott, successful editor of the country’s premiere fashion magazine—think the Diana Vreeland-ish boss of The Devil Wears Prada—suddenly feels she’s “falling to pieces.” Depressed and panicky, she’s desperate enough to give psychoanalysis a try. In sessions with psychiatrist Dr. Brooks, she recalls the notes of a childhood song (“My Ship”), but can’t understand why they frighten her. On the couch, she slips into waking dreams of glamorous nights, weddings, circuses, high school—“little one-act operas” Weill called them—that begin in hope and end in confusion and fear. Dream characters hurl questions: What’s the matter Liza? You should be happy. Tell the truth, Liza—who are you really, and what do you want? In her dreams, the doctor notes, Liza is the opposite of her workaday self: glamorous in jewel tones instead of drab browns; confident, not confused; feminine and passionate, the reverse of her usual controlled, cool persona.
As Liza, Janelle Lutz has a voice that can ring like a bell—and her performance soars at just the right moment, in Weill’s torchy “The Saga of Jenny.” She can seem a tad too controlled, even in some of the extravagant dream sequences—yet there’s plenty of verve in her quick-change transformations from prim to princess, helped along by costume designer Drenda Lewis’ sleek satin gowns.
Lois S. Hart scores in the small but vital role of Maggie Grant, Liza’s friend and colleague on the magazine. She’s funny and frank, and cares so much about Liza she convinces us she must be worth caring about. Sonny Franks is empathetic and focused as Dr. Brooks; Jenny Tucker amuses as a “too chic” columnist; and Ryan Appleby is a ball of artsy fire as the magazine’s gay (tho’ we couldn’t have called it that in ‘41) fashion photographer, and as the ringmaster in Liza’s circus dream, who breaks into the patter song “Tschaikowsky”—a long list of Russian composer’s names, cleverly rhymed a la Gershwin, and unrelated to anything else that’s going on. Why not? It’s all in her head.
In fairy tale style, Liza is given three choices—of guys, in this case. (Spoiler alert? Not really. You can see it coming for miles.) Christopher Deaton makes a handsome (if intentionally bland) lover; he’s the married publisher Liza’s lived with for years, but might not really want. Conor Guzmán, all white teeth and rock-hard abs, plays movie star Randy Curtis (“40 million women love him”), unexpectedly attracted to the no-nonsense Liza. And Shane Peterman is almost too annoying as Charley Johnson, the magazine’s hard-driving advertising exec—who seems to resent every inch of the woman who is his boss. “Teacher’s mad,” he sneers at Liza. [A script note for the Kurt Weill and Rodgers & Hammerstein folks: Are audiences really supposed to see this guy as All-American and attractive? Listen hard; you’ll hear women’s teeth grinding in the audience.]
Director and choreographer Ann Nieman keeps an ensemble of 30 players imaginatively on the move, and the production has a swirling and beautiful fluidity. The stage is often crowded, but there’s method in the madness: a minor-key wedding march turns into a gauntlet Liza must run; circus characters suddenly slam together to become a jury for Liza’s trial. Liza’s real life plays out in the corners, where set designer Cornelius Parker gives us a slash of doctor’s office here and Liza’s Art Deco office there. The land of her dreams, appropriately, exists in the stage space that lies between, gorgeously lit by designer Julie Simmons.
But though Lady’s visuals are striking, it’s the music that lingers.
Weill is probably most famous today for The Threepenny Opera and other avant-garde pieces from his days as Germany’s artistic wunderkind of the 1920s and 1930s. But the Nazis changed Weill’s trajectory. He came to live in America; more than that, he wholeheartedly committed himself to becoming an American, and an American artist—and why not? He’d been listening long-distance to the sounds and words of American musical theater and jazz for decades, making them his own. And Kurt Weill’s “American” music finds eager new listeners every year through concert and full productions of Knickerbocker Holiday, Street Scene, One Touch of Venus, Lost in the Stars and others—now including Lady in the Dark.
And speaking of lingering, be sure to linger after the bows to watch Jay Dias and the Lyric Stage orchestra gallop through Weill’s “Dance of the Tumblers”—the one bit of music from Lady that isn’t played in its original spot in the score. It’s a fun and unexpected musical bonus…just when you thought there wasn’t any more to hear.