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Light Up the Sky
By Elyse Sommer
Hart was also a successful solo practitioner. He wrote the book for the landmark stage and film musical Lady In the Dark; a best selling theatrical memoir Act One (see bookstore link below; and the ultimate insider backstage comedy, Light Up the Sky. As The Man Who Came to Dinner is currently being revived as the launching vehicle for the new Roundabout/American Airlines Theater (link below), so Light Up the Sky completes the summer 200 Williamstown Theatre season.
Since its 262 performance Broadway run in 1948, the comedy has had numerous revivals. Much of its continued appeal rests with Hart's savvy dialogue plus nostalgia for a by-gone theatrical era. Even more of an incentive for restaging it stems from the dozen juicy parts, an irresistible siren song for actors.
The WTF production has exactly the dream cast to wring every drop of comic excess from Hart's bigger than life characters. In Christopher Ashley, it also has a director with the sharp sense for timing needed to shepherd them through the traumas attending the opening of a new play by an unknown playwright -- sending them plummeting from high expectations, to hysterical angst after opening night, and towards the final morning after "surprise" ending.
Act one consists largely of a series of star turns as the various people involved with the play arrive at the star's apartment at Boston's Ritz Carlton Hotel (elegantly designed by Klara Zieglerova with time-defining lighting by Rui Rita) for celebratory drink prior to the dress rehearsal. First to light up the stage is an outrageously funny Peter Bartlett as Carleton Fitzgerald, the high strung director No sooner are you convinced Bartlett will steal the show, than Angelina Phillips enters, surprising all who know her from very different roles, as the delectable ditzy dumb as a fox wife of the show's producer. With her big hair blonde wig and squeaky voice, she is Judy Holliday reborn. But good as Phillips is, there's Ron Rifkin as Sidney Black, the personification of a blustery producer whose investment instincts are, contrary to his surname, pure gold. To go on, there's Cynthia Harris as Stella Livingston, the star's acerbic mother. She defies superstitious tradition by watching the dress rehearsal from the balcony disguised as a charwoman. This only results in a priceless pre-review of the show, as well as an even funnier scene in which she wordlessly listens to Carleton turn his glimpse of her into an overblown anecdote. Also spot on are Eric Stoltz as Peter Sloan, the playwright whose promising but unfathomable "allegory" drives the plot and Jessica Hecht as the always ON hostess, Irene Livingston.
Everyone is dressed to the nines by Michael Krass and the interaction, especially between Harris and Phillips, makes for ensemble as well as individual fun. The less showy roles of Irene's secretary, her Wall Street husband and a visiting Shriner from Indiana are ably handled (in stated order) by Enid Graham, T. Scott Cunningham and David Wohl. Frank Wood, who won a Tony for his role in Side Man is fine, if somewhat under used as Irene's playwright friend, Owen Turner.
Belonging as he does to the school of well made playmakers, Hart provides his characters with enough emotional substance to sustain their foibles and desperation driven shenanigans. Having seen no previous productions of the play, I can't say if it's been cut. Suffice it to say that Mr. Ashley maintains a crisp tempo that winds everything up in two hours and five minutes which includes the two intermissions that were once de rigueur.
Like many comedies of Kaufman and Hart's era, Light Up the Sky is more interested in tickling your funny bone than leaving you with any serious message. So, if you're looking for enlightenment more than light entertainment, go see Coriolanus at Shakespeare & Co. in Lenox, or Moon for the Misbegotten at the Miniature Theatre of Chester, or The Einstein Project at the Berkshire Theatre Festival. But then again, as those plays are entertaining as well as enlightening, Light Up the Sky does have a message. The messenger is William H. Gallagher (David Wohl), the Shriner who makes a brief appearance in the third act to remind everyone on stage and off that the theater is not just about critical and box office success but the magic of a make-believe world brought briefly to life.
A postscript on Light Up the Sky in context of the whole season at Williamstown: The festival shines at lavishly staged and well-cast productions of well-known playwrights. At least one of these is usually an eye-opening new look at something which failed to resonate with audiences during its initial life. Last year, that newly revitalized "flop" was Tennessee Williams' Camino Real (our review); this year it was Thornton Wilder's The Skin of Our Teeth (our review). Except for these forays into failed or neglected works, the Main Stage seems dedicated to old over new, and this reviewer for one, would like to see it light up at least occasionally with something of more recent vintage. Now that Thornton Wilder has made a successful showing, why not Tom Jones' and Harvey Schmidt's musicalized version of Our Town? It would fit in with the WTF dedication to giving new life to classic playss, and work better than this season's second evening of Coward one-acts, which made a weak stab at having musical credentials.
Our review of The Man Who Came to Dinner
Our review of Kaufman's more acerbic solo take on backstage life, The Butter and Egg Man
Act One : An Autobiography , a paperback edition of Moss Hart's still widely read and and highly readable memoir of Broadway from the depression through World War II.