REVIEW: Rodgers and Hart’s “I Married an Angel” at Encores!
The legendary songwriting duo of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart wrote nearly all of their enduring classics—including “On Your Toes” (1936), “Babes in Arms” (1937), “The Boys from Syracuse” (1938), and “Pal Joey” (1940)—at a dizzying pace in the final years of their 23-year-long partnership
Nestled among them was a quirky and fantastical smash hit that has since been lost to history. As the second show in this year’s Encores! series at New York City Center, Rodgers and Hart’s “I Married an Angel” (1938) is a feather-light postcard from a precious era of musical theatre evolution—thin on story, generous with dance, and trying, as it were, to push the form just a bit further.
Theatre nerds, and collectors of obscure musicals in particular, take note: this is not one you will want to miss, mostly because I doubt you’ll have a chance to see it on stage again any time soon. Everyone else: there are far better shows, even from this era, to revisit.
Adapted from a play by Hungarian playwright János Vaszary, and originally devised as a movie musical for MGM before being shelved, “I Married an Angel” is notable for being the third of Russian-born choreographer George Balanchine’s collaborations with Rodgers and Hart, and the vehicle through which he met his second wife, Vera Zorina.
The plot is simple and twee: set amid the drawing rooms of Budapest aristocracy, jaded bachelor banker Count Willie Palaffi (Mark Evans), fed up with feminine imperfection, swears off women, pledging only to marry an angel. Upon this declaration, a literal dancing Angel (ballerina Sara Mearns of the New York City Ballet) descends from heaven. Ah, the 1930s!
The two capriciously elope to Paris, but the Angel’s steadfast belief that “beauty is truth” and “truth beauty” makes her unable to tell a lie or adapt to social cues, causing a stir as Willie haplessly wards off a run on his bank by its depositors upon their return.
B-plots include the Countess Peggy Palaffi (Nikki M. James, “The Book of Mormon”)—Willie’s worldlier and wilier sister—and her engagement bargain with businessman Harry “Noodles” Szigetti (Tom Robbins, “Head Over Heels”), and a romance between Willie’s tap-dancing associate, Peter Mueller (Phillip Attmore), and his once (though very briefly) American fiancé, Anna Murphy (Hayley Podschun), who is more interested in mink than marriage.
Like Balanchine before him, director/choreographer Joshua Bergasse (“On the Town”) constructs a fluid evening of dancing divertissements centered around the talents of his wife, Ms. Mearns, who makes her speaking debut as the Angel following her smash success in Matthew Bourne’s “The Red Shoes” at City Center in 2017.
Most prominent, and no doubt bizarre for modern audiences, is an extended show-within-a-show fantasy sequence during a party scene in act two that is entirely unrelated to the plot or story. A travesty of a Radio City Music Hall presentation inspired by an off-hand line of dialogue, this collection of songs features each of the principal characters performing a vaudeville-like number representing their fantasy performance at the “Roxy Music Hall” in New York, culminating in the Angel’s fantasy: “Othello: A Surrealist Ballet”.
For this number, which, of course, has nothing to do with Othello, Mr. Bergasse draws inspiration from the art of French surrealist René Magritte (Balanchine’s was based on the work of Salvador Dalí), with dancers in color-blocking velvet body suits (costumes by Alejo Vietti) and masks representing living models of famous works by the artist. It makes for a dazzling scene that is nevertheless wholly inapposite from the balance of the show.
And that just about sums up “I Married an Angel”. Like so many musicals of the time, the careening story and witty dialogue mostly serve to tee up the next song, with an emphasis on entertainment over depth. This one occasionally provides the former, and none of the latter.
While it may be easy to rest on the surface of these observations, though, “I Married an Angel” also contains a plotline involving a panicked run on a bank and that Radio City pastiche—two constructs with deep resonance for its depression-weary 1938 audience. Through their eyes, it becomes clear why the show was a hit; through ours, it’s a relic.
It is a treat to hear Richard Rodgers’ tuneful score lushly performed by the 30 piece Encores! orchestra using the original orchestrations by Austrian master Hans Spialek. That’s especially true since no recording of “I Married an Angel” exists, and while it is a lesser achievement compared to the balance of Rodgers’ considerable oeuvre (and Hart’s lyrics are notably weak), it does contain such songs as “Did You Ever Get Stung?” and “Spring is Here”, and the earwormy “I Married an Angel” and “How to Win Friends and Influence People”.
Mr. Bergasse does a fine job with a book newly edited of its more obvious misogyny by playwrights Sarah Saltzberg and Sandy Rustin. The structural misogyny remains—women can only be waifish angels or devilish schemers. And his period-inspired dances are entertaining, though they lack a characteristic vocabulary.
One performer to watch is Mr. Evans, 34, who hails from Wales and is newer to New York audiences having recently closed “The Play That Goes Wrong” on Broadway and performed in “Me and My Girl” at Encores! last season (read my review). I suspect he will be headlining a new show before too long.
Next up, closing this year’s Encores! season, is Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn’s rarely seen 1947 musical “High Button Shoes” (May 8-12).
Bottom Line: Mark Evans shines in Rodgers and Hart’s 1938 hit “I Married an Angel”; this dance infused fantasy story involving an aristocrat who literally marries an angel is a peculiar relic of its time, but a treat for collectors of obscure musicals and fans of the Rodgers and Hart oeuvre. Director/choreographer Joshua Bergasse steps into the shoes once worn by George Balanchine to create an entertaining show featuring the talents of ballerina Sara Mearns (his wife), as the Angel. Feather-light as it is, I suspect we won’t see “I Married an Angel” again for some time.
“I Married an Angel”
131 West 55th Street
New York, NY 10019
Running Time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (one intermission)
Thursday, March 21st at 7:30PM
Friday, March 22nd at 8PM
Saturday, March 23rd at 2PM and 8PM
Sunday, March 24th at 2PM and 7PM