You don't have to be in love with the old play-with-music Lady in the Dark to appreciate its artful sophistication. It's an odd one, more psychodrama than full-out musical; there are only 65 minutes of singing spread out over two and a half hours. But because it's almost never produced in regional theaters (it was last near Broadway for a brief Encores! series performance in 1994), you should experience this collaboration of three creative geniuses — playwright Moss Hart, composer Kurt Weill, lyricist Ira Gershwin — to see and hear how they shook up American musical theater in both form and content in 1941. You'll also witness one great big knockout performance.
Now running in a years-in-the-making production at Irving's Lyric Stage, directed and choreographed by Ann Nieman and partially subsidized by the Kurt Weill Foundation, Lady in the Dark is a relic worth revisiting. It is retro chic, full of references to the Stork Club, Hattie Carnegie and Tommy Manville, but with satisfying surprises for audiences inured to formulaic modern schlock adapted from dumbed-down Disney movies. With no overture, no bing-bang-boom curtain-raising show tune, the lights simply go up in silence on a therapist's office. Magazine editor Liza Elliott, played by the phenomenally talented Dallas actress Janelle Lutz, enters for her first session of Freudian psychoanalysis with a kindly shrink (Sonny Franks).
Liza is troubled. She has a plum job running Allure, a Vogue-like fashion slick, and lives with her handsome-but-already-married publisher, Kendall Nesbitt (Christopher J. Deaton). But she's not happy at home or work, where her office pal Charley (a sexy Shane Peterman) thinks she needs to "divorce her desk."
Liza tells the psychiatrist that a haunting tune from her childhood keeps running through her head. As she hums the refrain, later expanded into the glorious "My Ship," lights go up on a line of handsome gents in tuxedos. They sing a serenade to Liza, calling her "Oh Fabulous One in Your Ivory Tower." Extolling Liza's beauty and charm, servants accept gifts of furs and flowers that suitors deliver to her penthouse. Then the lady herself glides in wearing a sleek evening gown, a different look from the dowdy suit and prim hat she had on in the therapist's office. (Costumes by Drenda Lewis are fashionably '40s in scenes of Liza's work life, then fancifully neon-hued in the musical numbers. The gowns for Lutz are stunners.)
All of that bit arises from Liza's dream life, the first of three sequences Weill called his "one-act operas." In them, Liza imagines an alter ego more confident and desired than she is in her workaday world. With the therapist and through her dreams, she will replay her relationships with men going back to high school. In one fantasy, she leaves Kendall at the altar. In reality, she almost marries a hunky young movie star named Randy Curtis (Conor Guzmán, cute but robotic). Gradually she rewinds to moments from her youth that resulted in adult neuroses. (According to biographies of playwright Moss Hart, he spent time in Freudian analysis and first conceived the idea for Lady in the Dark as a non-musical play titled I Am Listening, the three words his own therapist said to begin every session.)
The rhythm of storytelling in Lady in the Dark is strange, repetitive and sometimes even dull. It's unlike the lighthearted song-and-dance pacing of Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, or the dialogue-free sung-through musicals by Sondheim, Wildhorn and others. A full 20 or 30 minutes of talking go by between songs in Lady, often pedestrian palaver with Liza being indecisive about magazine layouts. But though they are grouped into those mini-operas, the 15 songs by Weill and Gershwin are lavishly and beautifully realized at Lyric Stage by a 30-piece orchestra led by musical conductor Jay Dias, who plowed deeply into research to restore the score to the original versions.
Among the highlights are "This Is New," a lilting ballad sung against waves of clashing chords, and "One Life to Live," featuring some of Ira Gershwin's tastiest lyrics: "If there's a party, I want to be the host of it/If there's a haunted house, I want to be the ghost of it/If I'm in town, I want to be the toast of it!" (This was Ira's first foray back to Broadway after the death of brother George.)
"Tschaikowsky," in the second-act circus-themed dream, is the comic patter number that made Danny Kaye famous as he rattled off the names of 49 Russian composers in a tongue-twisting 39 seconds. At Lyric, it's done by likable over-actor Ryan Appleby, who really deserves an encore.
And now to Ms. Lutz, whom we first worshiped last summer belting her way through the role of Judy Garland in Uptown Players' The Boy from Oz. From the opening moments of Lady in the Dark, it's clear that no matter how insecure and confused the main character is, the woman playing Liza Elliott is firmly in control. However "star quality" is defined, Lutz has it. And "it." And everything else required to be a success on this or any other stage.
Lutz looks and moves like an actress transported from a different era. Tall and lithe, unconventionally pretty, she can glamour-talk like a Rosalind Russell or growl like a Barbara Stanwyck. Her powerful soprano is far stronger than the reedy warble of Gertrude Lawrence, Lady in the Dark's original and much-heralded lead. (Julie Andrews was a great Liza Elliott, too, but she performed the role only in the show-within-the-film in the 1968 Lawrence biopic Star!).
Because so much of Lady in the Dark is dialogue, whoever plays Liza must be a commanding actress, and Janelle Lutz is that, too. Even on the wide expanse of stage, sometimes all alone in the spotlight, she delivers remarkably subtle emotions. In the finale, she sails effortlessly into that last dramatic solo, "My Ship," the realization of that haunting tune from the opening scene. Lutz makes it a triumph for Liza and for this entire production.
Lady in the Dark
continues through May 3 at Lyric Stage, Irving Arts Center, 3333 N. MacArthur Blvd.; tickets $23-$53 at 972-252-2787.