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'Light Up The Sky' Takes Laugh-Filled Look At A Time Gone By

"Light Up the Sky" is a backstage comedy that's in love with its subject.  (Mark S. Howard)
"Light Up the Sky" is a backstage comedy that's in love with its subject. (Mark S. Howard)
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Though “Light Up the Sky” is cluttered with easily mocked character types and all sorts of humorously boorish behavior, it’s not quite right to call the play a satire. For all its open-fisted jabs, this backstage comedy is ultimately just too in love with the world it depicts—that of Broadway actors, playwrights and producers, in the period not long after World War II.

As depicted here, this is a time when a theater star holds court in a cavernous suite at the Ritz-Carlton, leading a champagne toast before her tuxedo-clad director leaves to savor his pre-show ritual of strolling across Boston Common, soaking up the “magic time” between final rehearsal and opening night.

So it’s appropriate that director Scott Edmiston makes no sharp-tongued statement about show business in the snappy, very funny production now onstage (through June 13) at Lyric Stage Company of Boston. This diverting entertainment is light as a feather, but Edmiston and his merry cast of mainstays from the Boston theater scene make no apology for delighting in that fact.

(L-R) Paula Plum, Will LeBow, Kathy St. George (Mark S. Howard)
(L-R) Paula Plum, Will LeBow, Kathy St. George (Mark S. Howard)

Indeed, some of the joy in this production comes from watching stage veterans, who over the years have worked together in various combinations at different theater companies around the region, go into full-on ham mode. Moss Hart’s 1948 script is populated entirely by stock characters, but this is acknowledged right in the show’s program. Paula Plum plays “Irene Livingston, the Leading Lady.” Will LeBow is “Sidney Black, the Producer.” And so on. No one here aims to subvert these character types, but simply to bring them to blustery life—and have fun while doing so.

The scene is Livingston’s suite at the Ritz, before and after opening night of a new play at Boston’s Colonial Theatre. It’s a good, old-fashioned out-of-town tryout, where producers get a show on its feet before heading home to Broadway. Though that system is still in use today—see Williamstown Theatre Festival, where in recent years “Far From Heaven,” “Bridges of Madison County” and “The Visit” have premiered for short runs before moving to engagements planned on Broadway—the rise of regional theater and Off Broadway companies has altered the model.

(L-R) Will LeBow, Jordan Clark, Paula Plum, Alejandro Simoes (Mark S. Howard)
(L-R) Will LeBow, Jordan Clark, Paula Plum, Alejandro Simoes (Mark S. Howard)

Though everything (and everyone) in “Light Up the Sky” feels very familiar, Moss was in fact basing his characters on actual friends and associates in the theatrical world. But by now, they may as well be cartoons. Will McGarrahan positively chews the scenery as the pompous director, but that’s really the only way to play it. LeBow is terrific as the fast-talking producer full of manic energy, who can’t stop citing the amount of money he’s sunk into the show. (It was $300,000, did you hear?)

But it’s Bobbie Steinbach as the star actress’s seen-it-all mother who may have the most fun here, stomping around the suite in between rounds of gin rummy and tart-tongued wisecracks. As one of the few outsiders who has seen the play ahead of its opening, she’s in on a secret: It ‘aint so good. “I’ve heard such good things about your play,” she says to the humble young playwright (Alejandro Simoes), “seems a pity to open it.”

The craftsmanship here is at a high level. It’s found in the brisk pacing, comic timing, sharp costumes (by Gail Astrid Buckley), handsome set (by Janie E. Howland) and in the easy rapport among these skilled actors.

“Light Up the Sky” is chock full of great laugh lines, not all of which require a sort of in-crowd mentality to share in. But if you know enough about the theater world to share a knowing smile, it helps. Like when the celebrated old playwright Owen Turner, played with dry humor by Richard Snee, offers the bon mot: “Old playwrights never die, they just go out of town.”

(L-R) Bobbie Steinbach and Kathy St. George (Mark S. Howard)
(L-R) Bobbie Steinbach and Kathy St. George (Mark S. Howard)

Still, this is a bit of a museum piece, and with it closing the Lyric’s season immediately after the Golden-Age-of-Hollywood send-up “City of Angels,” one might wish for a more urgent programming vision from the company. If this play has anything to say to us about the contemporary theater scene, it’s about a certain artistic mentality. A director who asks eagerly about his play’s reviews, excusing his question by explaining that he “never reads them,” is indeed a familiar character.

One figment of nostalgia here is the importance of critics. The day is long gone when a production like the one discussed in “Light Up the Sky” really lives or dies on the strength of “a roll of the dice with seven middle aged men on the aisle who hated Mickey Mouse when they were kids,” as producer Black complains. And in 2015 it’s hard to imagine a time when a beloved starlet might ask breathlessly, “What did Elliot Norton say?” Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, I’ll leave to you.

The flattering hometown references (such as the one to Norton) evince an essentially provincial attitude, wherein a city’s theater scene is judged by its fitness to warm up a show for New York. I’d say it’s a good deal less glamorous nowadays, but more artistically relevant.

Sure, the actors and directors on the Boston scene might enjoy a turn being put up at the Ritz now and then—and I, for one, would like to see a resurgence of the tuxedo at opening night—but today’s theater community hopefully has much more to say about life and art and the world than does this production, or the characters in it.

But they sure are funny to watch.

Jeremy D. Goodwin contributes regularly to the Boston Globe, the ARTery (where he is also an editor), Berkshire Magazine and many other publications. See more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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