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Lady in the Dark

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Historians generally point to the 1943 opening of Oklahoma! as the moment when the American Musical Theatre came of age. But two years earlier Moss Hart, Kurt Weill and Ira Gershwin created a show that was adult, sophisticated and, within its unique structure, fully integrated. The show was Lady in the Dark and it dealt with psychoanalysis, women executives, and the various pressures of modern, urban life.

Liza Elliott is the high-powered editor-in-chief for a glamorous fashion magazine, though she favors severe suits and a no-nonsense attitude in her real life. But lately she has found herself crippled with indecision, both in her personal and professional lives. In desperation, she starts a course of analysis in which she describes her vivid dreams.  Liza’s busy office life and her visits to the analyst unfold in the conventional dramatic style of the period. There is no overture, no bursting into song, no underscoring. The only music in Liza’s daily life is a haunting sliver of melody from a childhood song. This tune proves to be the key to Liza’s indecision as well our entree into her spectacular dream life. In perfect contrast to her reality, the dreams are conceived as vividly colored, lushly orchestrated, through-composed mini-operas.

The original production starred the glamorous and mercurial Gertrude Lawrence as Liza. The show made a star of Danny Kaye, playing the secondary role of the flamboyant fashion photographer, Russell Paxton. It also featured a pre-Hollywood Victor Mature as movie star, Randy Curtis, and a pre-Gilligan’s Island Natalie Schafer as society columnist, Alison DuBois. And it was one of the most lavishly designed and expensive productions of the period.

Lyric Stage in Irving, Texas (midway between Dallas and Fort Worth) is producing this rarity in a new critical edition developed by the Kurt Weill Foundation. The company’s dedication to preserving the integrity of the original production has made them the go-to theatre for unveiling the laborious work of the musical historians in these authorized versions of shows. That work is particularly critical in any Kurt Weill score, as he was one of the few composers who orchestrated his own productions.

Liza is a tricky role and the fact that she is rarely off stage also makes it an exhausting one. Lyric is lucky in their choice of Janelle Lutz. She clearly delineates the various sides of Liza’s character from the focused businesswoman, to the glamorous dream inamorata, to the wounded little girl. She sings with a beguiling confidence and wears her costumes (nicely done by Drenda Lewis) with style.

Director Ann Nieman does her best work in the all-important dream sequences. She uses clever musical staging to focus the action on a busy stage, and she carefully builds Liza’s burgeoning sexuality as she sheds her inhibitions during “The Saga of Jenny.” Nieman is less successful in the office scenes. These are constructed in a brisk, high energy style that was common at the time. Without that clipped dialog, Lois S. Hart’s Maggie, Jenny Tucker’s Alison and Ryan Appleby’s Russell fall back on a contemporary realism, which forces them to work too hard to make their laugh lines land properly. Appleby has a stronger singing voice than most of his predecessors in the role, and he delivers the tongue-twisting “Tschaikowksy” with ease.

On the opposite side of the reality spectrum, Conor Guzman turns Randy Curtis, Liza’s possible love interest, into too much of a cartoon to take seriously. One wonders how he could be considered a serious rival for Christopher Deaton’s nicely underplayed (and younger than written) Kendall Nesbitt. In the script’s most dated role, Shane Peterman makes the correct choice to simply play Charley Johnson’s borderline misogyny straightforwardly and without comment. Sonny Franks’ Dr. Brooks has a sympathetic authority which makes the analyst scenes surprisingly engaging.

But no one is watching Lady in the Dark for its book scenes. It is Kurt Weill’s brilliantly insinuating score and Ira Gershwin’s adroit lyrics which continue to fascinate. And, as always at Lyric, both are in the best of hands with Music Director/Conductor Jay Dias. While Dias keeps Weill’s urbane sheen in place, he also finds surprising depths of emotion below the surface. Fans of the score will notice some minor lyric revisions and a few musical repeats, which have not found their way onto a recording. “The Dance of the Tumblers,” which has been recorded separately from the score, is used as Exit Music. The big musical surprise is an entr’acte.

During intermission I noticed several patrons arguing about whether the show is truly a musical. Seventy-plus years on, Lady in the Dark retains its originality and ability to surprise.

Lyric Stage   April 24 – May 3 2015  www.lyricstage.org

 

 

Spotlight

Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”

ABOUT ELLEN RICHARD

Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.