|The Cast of "Light Up the Sky"|
(photo: Mark S. Howard)
Lyric Stage Company's current production is “Light Up the Sky”, the 1948 comedy written (and originally directed) by Moss Hart. It's a madcap behind-the-scenes story typical of its time, especially notable for local theatergoers for the fact that the action takes place in Boston. In real life, the play actually tried out in Boston, as well as Philadelphia and New Haven. Rumor had it that some of the characters were based on actual theatrical folk (such as actress Gertrude Lawrence and entrepreneur Billy Rose). On Broadway, it had a successful run of over two hundred performances. Now in the incredibly perfect hands of Director Scott Edmiston, it's once again on a roll, though, ironically, the original flopped in its Boston tryout.
As the music from the film “All about Eve” plays, we see the living room of a sumptuous suite in the Ritz-Carlton (now the Taj) Hotel in Boston where the entire timeline of the play (from 5:30pm to 3:30am the next morning) takes place. The suite is occupied by celebrated actress Irene Livingston (Paula Plum) on the opening night of the new play “The Time Is Now” by novice playwright and former truck driver Peter Sloan (Alejandro Simoes), at the Colonial Theatre. On hand for the pre-opening hysterics are Irene's entourage: her ghost-writer Miss Lowell (Jordan Clark), working on the actress' autobiography, her flamboyant director Carleton Fitzgerald (Will McGarrahan), constantly crying “I could cry”, her low-brow producer Sidney Black (Will LeBow) and his ice-skating-star and wife Frances (Kathy St. George). Also included are Owen Turner (Richard Snee), a playwright whose works have been performed by Irene in the past, her sarcastic gin-rummy-playing mother Stella (Bobbie Steinbach), Irene's husband Tyler Rayburn (Terrence O'Malley), and a Shriner named William H. Gallagher (Bob Mussett) who also turns out to be stage-struck. This troupe confirms the view of the story's novice playwright about the “humanity of these people”, as they to prove to be all too human. Oh, and there's also one caged parrot, frequently under wraps, perhaps lest it reveal too much, rather like a canary in a coal mine.
The success of a work that features such a corps of larger-than-life characters depends on the elusive ability to chew scenery without making it indigestible, and this cast does so artfully and hilariously on point, led by a quartet of divas. Those headliners would include the trio of madcap actresses, locally beloved, by the names of Plum, St. George and Steinbach, each with her singular opportunity to light up this particular sky. The fourth, and most surprisingly adept diva, is none other than McGarrahan, who adds to an amazingly varied roster of his roles, that of the hyperventilated director. And attention must be paid to the other luminaries in this milky way of star turns, including LeBow and Snee. It's the rare production in this day and age that provides such a cornucopia of corn, and exquisite corn this is. The technical contributions exceed the excellent standard typically set by the company, beginning with the absolutely smashing Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland, stylish and over-the-top Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley, superb Lighting Design by Karen Perlow, and expert Sound Design by Samuel Hanson. The incidental Music Direction was by cast member McGarrahan, including a clever use of “There's No Business Like Show Business” from “Annie Get Your Gun”, which would have been heard just two seasons before the arrival of “Light Up the Sky”.
Any comedy written over six decades ago must of course have some references that have lost their meaning for contemporary audiences. How many, for example, will recognize the aside “I'm married to Mortimer Snerd”, or allusions to former Boston critics Elliott Norton and Elinor Hughes, or even the fact that back in the day there were no fewer than seven Boston critics in print, amicably skewered by Hart as “seven guys on the aisle who didn't like Mickey Mouse when they were kids”? Yet many of the lines are as on target today as they must have been then, such as the quip “old playwrights never die, they just go out of town”. And one player is devastatingly described as “human wreckage”. The old truism stands that a writer should write about what she or he knows, and Hart surely knew the theatre world well.
And what of that title? In the printed text (and original program), Hart quotes the purported source for the title as the lines: “Mad, sire? Ah, yes -mad indeed- but, observe how they do light up the sky”, as spoken by “Old Skroob” in “The Idle Jeste”. 'Twas a jest indeed on the part of Hart, as he entirely made up the reference; “Skroob” was, in fact, a real inside joke, as it's an anagram for the given name of then-New-York-Times-Critic Brooks Atkinson. Early in the play there's an apt reference to the fact that “the magic only happens out of town”. The play-within-a-play is referred to, by one critic who found it incomprehensible, as an allegory. No such fate awaits this “Light Up the Sky”, which is a production sure to split your sides, with a level of direction and acting rarely seen in these parts, or anywhere. It's achingly funny, memorably quotable, and astoundingly relevant. And utterly illuminating.