Dallas — Mounting a Broadway production has always been a circus act. A writer puts people and events on paper, then writhes in the wings as his play is processed by a producer who coughs up the bucks to pay for it, a high-strung director gets his head around it, famous actors stake out their claim to what happens, and critics deliver a verdict. All this creative energy and ego is sure to combust. Will it be a Roman candle or a fizzled firecracker?
See for yourself in Moss Hart’s Light Up the Sky, a spoof about just such theater folks, which premiered on Broadway in 1948, and is now harnessed to a playfully stylized production directed at full gallop by K. Doug Miller at Theatre Three. Katie, bar the door—a diva’s coming through!
Hart catches his characters’ theatrical terrors and triumphs on opening night in 1942 in Boston, in three acts. (Yes. Two intermissions for frivolous gossip and appropriate beverages.) We see their shaky moments right before the performance, right after the show and at 4 a.m. when the reviews are posted. What are these exquisitely wound-up, gorgeously costumed (by Bruce R. Coleman) creatures to do as their lives and bank accounts waver in the balance? Of course, they quarrel and simper and lose faith and drink champagne and play gin while the audience laughs at their bubbly plight.
Director Miller keeps the question floating and the glamorous excitement of a long-gone Broadway theater scene right before our eyes on the arena stage. He conjures up satin-dressing-gown and black-tux evenings when undiscovered playwrights struck it big, fabulous divas ruled the stage, and visionary producers opened doors to Broadway. Hart’s love for his drama queens, neurotic directors and hardheaded, heart-driven producers is evident in this production—despite their sometimes stereotypical speeches in the play that might feel like so much hot air in lesser hands. Miller’s cast does him proud.
Elegant Lydia Mackay’s Irene Livingston, the actress every one is depending on to deliver the goods, is every inch the sweeping diva. Tall, slender and clearly enamored of her own posture and position, she commands her suite in Boston’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel, rendered here by Rodney Dobbs in Art-Decco-ish style with elegant vases and entry details, with a haute glance and occasional outright bitchiness about not having a line until the second act.
Bob Hess’s Carleton Fitzgerald, the sobbingly sensitive director credited with Irene’s previous blockbusters, is so sensitive he cries at card tricks. Hess is the hilarious embodiment of an artist who acts out his every thought and feeling with visible shivers or spontaneous declarations of adoration. When he presents the necklace once worn by a famed actress to Irene, the two comically and joyously wallow in outdoing each other’s gratitude.
As Sidney Black, David Coffee brings the staunch realism of a first-rate character actor to the Philistine producer with an ear for the authentic. Rallying the troops in a last-ditch stand to bring back the poor writer all have forsaken, Coffee’s boardroom authority and comic timing energize an essentially sentimental scene with authentic purpose. Jessica Cavanagh, as Frances Black, the rich producer’s wife and former ice-skating star, is a feisty and savvy gal. She may lose at gin rummy with Irene’s omnipresent mom, but flouncy Frances has her eyes on the prize when it comes to shopping binges and big-time Broadway shows.
Ivy Opdyke, in the role of Stella Livingston, Irene’s mother, manager and master manipulator, is a stage mom with style and attitude to spare. She even dresses up as a cleaning woman to sneak a peek at the dress rehearsal—against director’s orders—and decides the whole show is nauseating. A charmingly theatrical duet of eyebrows and grimaces erupts when the ecstatic producer of the show tells his version of seeing a “decrepit old woman, a withered crone” watching the show with ardent attention from the balcony. These two are pros at orchestrating laughs.
Seth Monhollon is both naïve and touchingly independent as the young, abject playwright. Doug Fowler, in the role of the experienced writer Owen Turner, is supportive, if somewhat bland, as the man who’s been there and survived chaotic opening night shifts of loyalty and over-the top thespian enthusiasm.
Svelte Samantha Whitlock is a fastidious and quietly astute secretary to the proceedings, her old-time typewriter cadence keeping time to the big band beat opening and closing each act.
Great drama it’s not, but this production of Light Up the Sky delivers a playful and upbeat slice of theater nostalgia. Just right for a spring evening out.