Let’s be frank: “I Married an Angel” is a terrible musical. It has mediocre songs, a cockamamie plot, a bad book, and seriously dated jokes. But I think everyone involved in the current Encores! revival knew that going into it. The reason for its resurrection overlooked these factors. City Center’s 75th anniversary season includes many tributes to George Balanchine, who choreographed the original “Angel” production for his first wife Vera Zorina. In a kismet confluence, Broadway choreographer Joshua Bergasse helmed this incarnation and made the dances for his new wife, the New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns, in her first stab at acting. If ever there was a time to try to dust off this 1938 Rodgers and Hart B-side, it was now. Was it worth the effort? To quote the Countess Palaffi, “a little.”
Let’s start with the main event, Sara Mearns’s angelic Broadway debut. She certainly looked the part of the angel who comes down to earth. She was ravishing in a series of white gowns—an aerodynamic Marilyn Monroe. I was impressed with her calm speaking voice and her committed acting. But she couldn’t save a labored comedic scene involving a telephone, nor a clowning sequence about the complexity of ladies’ lingerie. The gags could be seen coming from a mile away, and they weren’t that funny to begin with. I thought Mearns made the most of her role—if only it had been a juicier one!
The main problem with her material was choreographic. Mearns is a major ballerina, but Bergasse is far less comfortable in the medium of ballet than he is in tap and jazz. The angel’s big dance showpiece, the “Honeymoon Ballet,” should have been Mearns’s star turn. Instead it was a clichéd pastiche of dances from around the world. Bergasse leaned hard on turns and heavy jumps, but there wasn’t enough suspense around them. They were too constant, and his wife is too good. Mearns can power her way through anything (see her impossible solo in Alexei Ratmansky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition”) so straight technical feats are unexciting on her without some shading and drama built into the surrounding steps. Mostly it looked like hard, thankless work. Mearns seemed so glad every time the dapper Christian Tworzyanski stepped onstage to squire her through some of it.
In tap, however, Bergasse shines. The number “How to Win Friends and Influence People” was knockout. Led by the incredible triple threat Hayley Podschun, it was rousing and fun—the only groan-free scene of the night. A tap solo for the wonderful Phillip Attmore in the Roxy Music Hall sequence was another highlight. If Mearns was a hoofer rather than a prima ballerina perhaps this production would have worked better. Then the showstoppers would’ve belonged to her. But it seems right to have the angel perform in pointe shoes. Nothing screams ethereal otherworldliness like pointework. Mearns’s poor angel just never got a chance to really soar through dance. Nonetheless, Bergasse provided a nice coming out party for his wife in the acting realm. I could see her taking on bigger things in this vein, or even spreading her wings in film.
The inanity of “I Married an Angel” was hard to overcome, as were its misogynistic attitudes. The book was apparently updated (by Sandy Rustin and Sarah Saltzberg) in an attempt to combat this problem, but I think it was beyond repair. The central comedic premise is that the Count Palaffi of Budapest has sworn off marriage unless he can find a woman who is pure and true, and sure enough an angel swoops right in to marry him. She cannot tell a lie (although she can have sex and slap people—the angel’s inability to sin is apparently highly selective) and ends up upsetting everyone in her earthly husband’s circle. This includes endangering his banking business (which was already on the rocks, she only exacerbates things because she does not flirt with or pay lip service to his investors). The Pinocchio principle is ripe for so many hilarious ideas, as in Ricky Gervais’s film The Invention of Lying. In “Angel” however, the idea was only teased out so far as the instruction of a newly minted woman on how to behave to support her man in his work and his life.
The show worked best when Bergasse’s staging incorporated modern, meta-commentary accents on the daftness of it all. As when Mearns said farewell to her dippy seraphic coterie with fist bumps and saucy shimmies, and when Mark Evans was flanked by an all-female corps dressed in lederhosen drag as his drinking bros in the “Man from Milwaukee” sequence. It was also hilarious to have a crappy paper angel shoot across the stage on a string before Mearns glamorously bourréed out from the center of the band for her very first entrance.
Otherwise, this is a piece from another time. I initially wondered if it shouldn’t have been done as written and presented as a démodé curio. I find a lot of movies from the ’30s to be frightfully bad in attitude and plot, but enjoyable in a time-capsule kind of way. But in the end, I think that Bergasse et al. were correct in trying to adapt it. For having real, modern people saying unpalatable things live is quite different from watching Katharine Hepburn, etc., say them into the cameras of their own eras.
There were some pleasures to be had, despite the musical’s foundational shortcomings. The art deco bandstand set by Allen Moyer was stylish. Rob Fisher and the Encores! Orchestra did all they could with the uneven Rodgers score. Podschun and Attmore were fantastic throughout. And in the non-dancing central role, Mark Evans sang beautifully and looked handsome as the stick-in-the-mud Willy Palaffi.
Above all, Alejo Vietti’s costumes were so divine they stole the show. The dresses were vibrant, flattering and interesting. Principals Mearns, Podschun, and Nikki M. James each had multiple looks in their signature colors (white, green, and red) and each one was better than the last. The gowns for the ensemble women were sumptuous as well. The only section in which I didn’t love the costumes was the Magritte-inspired “Othello: A Surrealist Ballet.” It was supposed to be the angel’s fantasy of performing at the Roxy, yet I did not believe for one second that that glum semi-beatnik/semi-modern number would have been her daydream. In pointy lyrical shoes and a tri-colored velvet unitard Mearns led the ensemble in squats, flexed-foot développés, and cockeyed sissones. It seemed another waste of Mearns’s talents.
I wonder what Balanchine’s original, much-lauded choreography looked like, but sadly it is mostly lost. Balanchine was a ballet guy who dabbled in Broadway rather than the other way around—and maybe that is what this show requires. Whatever the case, add “I Married an Angel” to the list of things that only Balanchine could pull off. His mythology is fully intact. Otherwise, after this run ends I don’t expect to hear about this musical again and that’s good. That being said, if the ballet-centric Justin Peck ever wants to mount a revival for the lovely Patricia Delgado I’d probably buy a ticket out of sheer curiosity.