Maria Friedman’s Liza Elliott character walks a tightrope in the Royal National Theater production of “Lady in the Dark,” and so, it must be said, does the show itself. A half-century on from its Broadway debut, the first collaboration between Moss Hart, Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weill emerges in its London premiere as an intriguing reclamation well worth the National’s attention and, at the same time, as a period piece whose attitudes and assumptions today look obvious, simplistic, or both. Those expecting a wallow in forgotten melodic riches will find a sometimes surprisingly desultory score whose best-known numbers come in a musical cascade at the end, climaxing in a healing “My Ship” that provides the one true moment when the show’s ship, as it were, comes in.
Up until then, one is grateful for the chance finally to see the piece, while ever aware of the qualities about it that would make any commercial producer reluctant to stage a full revival, director Francesca Zambello’s often smart choices notwithstanding. (New York’s Encores! series hosted a concert version in 1994.)
It’s tempting to regard “Lady in the Dark” as the Sondheim musical that Sondheim never wrote. Not only does its conceptual audacity anticipate the Sondheim era and beyond, but its classically indecisive heroine, Liza, could be a ’40s version of the comparably anxious Bobby in “Company.” Both are given 11th-hour breakthrough numbers that point the way forward, while librettist Hart’s juxtapositions of Liza’s neurotic real life and her glamorous dreamscape portend the more subtly (and elegantly) cathartic “Loveland” sequence in “Follies.” (“The Saga of Jenny” can be seen as a direct forebear, thematically and musically, of the later show’s “Story of Lucy and Jessie.”)
On its own terms, it’s easy to see why “Lady in the Dark” was startling in 1941 and yet why some of those innovations cast a pall today. At heart (Hart?), the story is a psychodrama of the sort that prevailed in the theater up to and including “Equus,” in which no problem is so great that it cannot be resolved once relived. Liza, the improbably starchy editor of an upscale magazine, Allure, is vacillating between three men — the married and moneyed Kendall Nesbitt (Paul Shelley), who launched the magazine for her; movie icon Randy Curtis (Steven Edward Moore), willing to put hunkdom on hold if she will marry him; and ad man Charley Johnson (Adrian Dunbar), as competitive as he is keen, especially when referring to Liza as “boss lady.”
Sending Liza into a month’s trial analysis is her obsession with a tune she cannot finish and which she will not name. Successive visits to a psychiatrist (Hugh Ross, effecting Harvard-accented variations on his role last season opposite Friedman in “Passion”) allow her to work through a fraught series of dreams resulting in her life being put on trial, “The Saga of Jenny” as her defense.
Derided as plain at age 3, she later suffered an adolescent sweetheart stolen away mid-kiss. Small wonder she has buried inside her the sexually suggestive “My Ship” in favor of marriage of a different sort — to what Charley calls “that goddamned desk.” Only self-love, followed by the love of others, can awaken the song within. As Liza puts it, “I’m getting a slow divorce from myself,” shedding crippling self-regard so she can live by her own tune.
There’s nothing dated about the situation per se: Liza’s balancing act is one faced by careerists then and now. More troubling is the often painfully slow exegesis of a quandary that is forever spelling itself out. (I’ve rarely seen so many people glancing furtively at watches as they were during a repetitive first act.)
Written on the verge of the U.S. entering World War II (an event alluded to several times), the story of a woman at war with her self might have struck its creators as potentially solipsistic. To that end, “Lady in the Dark” is rife with passages justifying itself, and justifying psychiatry, that are jarring to the ear today, even if the anti-shrink jokes (especially splendid as proffered by the tart Maggie of Charlotte Cornwell, in full Rosalind Russell mode) may go down better in London than they would in 1997 New York.
Liza, too, doesn’t always make sense, however gamely the talented, if vocally off-form, Friedman tries to fill a role to which she isn’t naturally suited. (Paging Meryl Streep, a Broadway alum of Weill’s “Happy End.”) First conceived as a part for Katharine Cornell and then rethought as a musical vehicle for Gertrude Lawrence, Liza seems an unlikely candidate to edit a high-style glossy mag, even one that has been provided for her. (If Hart’s book is ever rethought, she would make a more logical CEO.)
Initially dressed by costume designer Nicky Gillibrand in what can only be described as prison-garb chic, Friedman’s Liza seems so beset that it is difficult to see her as any kind of erotic magnet. Of her suitors, only Moore (an American making his London debut) brings any charm to his courtship, playing the Victor Mature role with a self-mockery that stops just short of sending up the part. A too-dour Charley, the usually splendid Dunbar is notably miscast: it’s a mistake to have this non-singer join Friedman for what ought to be a triumphant finale. (Friedman’s “My Ship” constitutes its own immaculate musical play.)
“Lady in the Dark” isn’t an integrated musical; it’s a series of book scenes interspersed with fantasy musical sequences, here scaled down by Terry Davies for a band of 14. The result is that the show takes a long time to lift off, and once it does, the music doesn’t soar in keeping with Gershwin’s lyrics. The wittiest words are reserved for the celebrated patter song “Tschaikowsky” (a Mandy Patinkin staple), given such a slurred delivery by James Dreyfus’ manically queeny Russell Paxton (the Danny Kaye part) that one applauds the breathlessness of the rendition without understanding most of it.
Absolutely clear are Adrianne Lobel’s clever, kaleidoscopically colored sets, lit by Rick Fisher. Seemingly abstract, they emerge as so many swiveling sails defining the ship of self-understanding on which Liza at last floats. Whether the piece itself achieves the same buoyancy remains open to debate, which is why “Lady in the Dark,” for all its glories, may leave audiences impatient with a fascinatingly fraught show that, unlike its heroine, refuses to mend.