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Lady in the Dark: still a relevant musical?
Theatre Review

Lady in the Dark: still a relevant musical?

1 by Sarita RAO 3 min. 25.11.2022
Director Anna Pool mixes nostalgic settings with a modern take on this 1940s Broadway opera
Photo credit: Bjorn Frins

A musical, first staged in January 1941, still has something to say about women’s choices, how childhood traumas affect our adult lives, burnout, depression, and anxiety that is relevant for a modern audience.

The Dutch philharmonie zuidnederland under conductor David Stern brings a perfect rendition of Lady in the Dark, with immaculate directing from up-and-coming UK talent Anna Pool, a well-executed choreography by Rebecca Howell, a solid cast, and gorgeous costumes from Madeleine Boyd.

Three men - Kurt Weill, Ira Gershwin and Moss Hart - put together this musical about a female heroine facing her demons, with a nod towards self-made women and self-help. That explains, perhaps, why there is nothing about the confines in which working women then - and now - find themselves.

Main character Liza Elliot is editor-in-chief of Allure, an American fashion magazine. Hard-working and highly competent, she’s heading for burnout and experiencing anxiety, depression and even panic attacks. 

If that sounds familiar, the play succeeds in showing that women who make it to the top, often do so by putting themselves under extreme pressure.

Stage setting recreates the bustle of life at a 1940s fashion magazine
Stage setting recreates the bustle of life at a 1940s fashion magazine
Photo: Bjorn Frins

What tips Liza over the edge - and into the arms of psychiatrist Dr Brooks, in this case as a woman - is a marriage proposal from her newly divorced, long-term boyfriend and magazine publisher, Kendall Nesbitt. She knows she should accept, but is drawn to an affair with movie star Randy Curtis instead. Added to this, she is having strange dreams about the people in her life, including her work colleague and adversary, Charley Johnson.

Her therapy involves recollecting her dreams, which is how we get to know different sides to our heroine. A first dream shows Liza as glamorous, in demand by the rich and famous, adored by the public. This is who she wants to be. Yet she is unable to embrace the role wholeheartedly, preferring to hide behind dowdy clothes and long working days.

A wonderful rendition of “Tchaikovsky and other Russian composers” in the circus dream sequence
A wonderful rendition of “Tchaikovsky and other Russian composers” in the circus dream sequence
Photo: Bjorn Frins

In the second dream, Liza finds herself at her own wedding to Kendall, captivated by Randy and unable to say “I do”. In the final and brilliant circus sequence, the big top turns into a courtroom, where Liza’s indecision is put on trial.

As an audience, we watch Liza figure out who she thinks she wants to be through her subconscious, which lends itself to some marvellous staging, colourful costumes, and a fantastically moody, jazz-scat and swing score that ignites the atmosphere.

Dr Brooks points out that Liza’s indecisiveness in love reflects her indecisiveness as a woman. Is she glamorous and beautiful, or is she hard -working and successful? It is never clear if she can be both.

It is only when Liza can remember the words to a song that she hums out loud throughout the show, that she unlocks her true self, by revisiting a childhood trauma that fuels her ambiguity.

Humour and crazy brass

Moss Hart based the book on his own experiences of psychotherapy, and Ira Gershwin weaves a bit of humour into the lyrics, including a flawless rendition of the song Tchaikovsky and other Russian composers

Kurt Weill’s score creates a bustling 1940s New York office, and the wonderful waltzes and crazy brass during the dream sequences. A pity that the music sometimes drowned out the words the chorus sang.

Asked if a modern-day woman can still relate to Liza Elliot, director Pool said that “It is all the more striking that the problems that Liza encounters, such as an enormous workload and choice stress, have not changed. They just got bigger. Not only women, but also men, experience anxiety problems, depression, and panic attacks.”

Pool deliberately staged the show to capture the extravagance of 1940s Broadway, and there is a nostalgic tinge to the way it is delivered that makes it feel like you are on the set of an old movie.

Regardless of whether you think this 80-year-old Broadway opera captures the work life balance conundrum of today, Lady in the Dark raises some good points about mental health. Most of all, it highlights Kurt Weill’s incredible abilities as a composer. Lady in the Dark will be performed again at the Grand Théâtre on Saturday 26 November at 20.00. 

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