The gorgeous Prince Music Theater production of “Lady in the Dark,” which comes 60 years after the original Broadway run, is far more than deference to a legend — it’s great theater.
The plot — Moss Hart’s book is really a naturalistic drama with musical interludes — might seem old hat in our world of heightened consciousness about female roles, but this production never feels dated. The lady in question is Liza Elliot, powerful editor of a Vogue-like fashion magazine, who goes to a psychoanalyst because she feels in a constant state of terror although her life is full of success, love and money.
The scenes shift between the subdued office of her shrink, Dr. Brooks, and Liza’s art-deco publishing office, filled with supermodels and superclothes, temperamental photographers, ironical assistants and eccentric gossip columnists. Each time Miss Elliot lies down on the couch to describe one of her troubling dreams or memories, the show bursts into song, dance and spectacularly surreal staging, “a galaxy of clowns and neuroses.” Dr. Brooks can be seen sitting in the balcony, munching popcorn.
Casting Dr. Brooks as a woman neatly sidesteps some of the patronizing elements inherent in Freudian analysis (“there should be a beard and a Viennese accent around somewhere”), and Liza Elliot’s problem is surely not unrecognizable today: women who opt for power as an evasion of feminine roles, competing with men rather than competing for them. As her art director tells her, she “has magazines instead of babies,” wearing “authority like a thick enamel.”
The “Glamour Dream” of act one establishes the tone: Kurt Weill’s edgy, melodic, sinewy music and Ira Gershwin’s witty, dazzling lyrics are combined with Robert La Fosse’s Tilt-a-Whirl choreography full of retrograde jokes (white-gloved hands, silhouettes, terrifying dips) and extravagant costumes flirting with the bizarre.
The “Circus Dream” of act two moves from Gilbert & Sullivan to German expressionism without a flinch, until finally arriving at the lovely half-remembered song that haunts Liza’s mind, “My Ship.” Through it all, a plausible psychoanalytic portrait emerges.
Andrea Marcovicci’s Liza Elliot is always fine: Her elegant, intimate cabaret style works against expectation, and she uses her incandescent smile to ironically comment on the song as she is singing it or the line as she is delivering it. The famous “Saga of Jenny” is as close as Marcovicci gets to belting, which is not all that close — as a performer she has more in common with the restrained editor than her glamorous dream persona.
All the supporting roles are splendidly inhabited. Brian O’Brien’s rich, smooth voice as the heartthrob movie star is especially good, and Mark Vietor is hilarious in “Tschaikowsky,” the tongue-twister song that made Danny Kaye famous.
When this show opened, the world was following WWII news and Pearl Harbor was only a few months in the future. In the inevitable quest for relevance these days, Ted Sperling’s direction strikes a balance of what could be competing music, dialogue, entertainment and substance. “Lady in the Dark” works because it isn’t just about a shallow Schiaparelli world, but about how hard it is to live a shallow life in the dark.