Thursday, August 12, 2010

A Little Night Music: Don't You Love Farce?

Little Night Music
Buzz Buzz Buzz
Who can do Armfeldt
Like Angie does?
Let’s go with Stritchie
Cuz Cuz Cuz
She’ll help us get through summer’s slump

With CZJ’s leaving
Bye bye bye
No one was grieving
Why why why
With Bernadette Peters
Standing by
We can get through summer’s slump

I cannot recall so much chatter around a production of a Broadway musical as has occurred with the current revival of A Little Night Music, with book by Hugh Wheeler and music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.

First there was the brouhaha about the production itself, yet another minimalist gift from London’s Menier Chocolate Factory (single drab set and minuscule orchestra). Then there was the noise about the celebrity casting of yet another movie star in a Broadway show, in this case Catherine Zeta-Jones in the lead role of Desirée Armfeldt, an actress longing to escape the “glamorous life” of her career and to settle down with the man who is the love of her life, not to mention the father of her daughter.

Anyway, the show opened in December of 2009 to mixed reviews, with the only unabashed kudos reserved for Angela Lansbury in the role of Madame Armfeldt, Desirée’s mother and a former highly successful courtesan who despairs at her daughter’s lack of skill in using men, as she herself had done, to assure her financial security.

At the 2010 Tony Awards, Ms. Zeta-Jones walked off with the prize for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical, and it appeared that the show would come to a halt at the end of the two stars’ contracts in June of this year.

But then something most unusual happened, and the buzzing revved up again. Maybe the producers could find replacements with enough star power to keep the show running.

The rumor mill and wish lists churned out dozens of names, but two started showing up with greater frequency: Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch, both true stars of Broadway, and both with histories of performing in Sondheim shows (Peters in Sunday in the Park With George and Into the Woods; Stritch in Company).

The choice of Bernadette Peters was a no-brainer, pretty much on everyone’s short list for the role of Desirée. But brassy, raspy, tough-as-nails Elaine Stritch, in the role of the sophisticated, worldly Madame Armfeldt? Singing that most difficult of Sondheim’s numbers, Liaisons? Would she dare? Could she pull it off? Would she crash and burn?

Daily reports on A Little Night Music began to pour in when it reopened in July with the new stars. And yes, Ms. Peters immediately won everyone’s hearts. And, yes, it did seem that Ms. Stritch was showing signs of both crashing and burning—forgetting her lines, struggling with defining her character, driving some of her long-time fans to publicly call for her to step down or to use an assistive device (like the earpiece Ms. Lansbury used so that forgotten lines could be whispered as needed by someone backstage).

I did not see A Little Night Music with Ms. Zeta-Jones and Ms. Lansbury, nor had I been particularly interested. I saw the legendary original production back in 1973, with Glynis Johns as Desirée and Hermione Gingold in the role of Madame Armfeldt, and a later first-rate production in 1994 at Chicago’s Goodman Theater.

While I like the show, I felt that twice was enough; it would take something pretty special to get me to return for a third viewing.

And then they went and did do something special.

And so I went, waiting a couple of weeks for the new stars to settle in.

Here is my report:

Bernadette Peters is perfectly cast, lives up to all the high expectations, and gives a wonderful performance.

Elaine Stritch has made the role of Madame Armfeldt her own, and she has such a command of the stage that even her eccentricities, including her talk-through of Liaisons, work. I noticed one hesitation and a few scrambling of words the day I saw it, but neither interfered with the performance or pulled me out of the moment.

The rest of the cast is fine, if not extraordinary, and I can live with the minimalist set. I am glad that, with the exception of Henrik’s cello, we don’t have to see the actors double up as the musicians.

My one quibble has to do with Trevor Nunn’s directing. A Little Night Music, like a Chekhov play, deals with the follies of the young, the middle aged, and the elderly. These follies are fully expressed when the city folks head out for a weekend in the country. There is a lot of letting loose contained within the script, but the humor is, in my view, best performed in a manner that is arch and urbane.

Nunn, however, has opted for an exaggerated air of silliness, as if he had honed in on the line from Send In The Clowns: “don’t you love farce?” For my taste, there is way too much shtick and mugging and running around that threaten to undermine the production toward the end. Send in the clowns, indeed!

Still there is much to enjoy, and Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch help turn this revival of A Little Night Music into a truly memorable occasion. If, like me, you hesitated to see it in its Hollywood-Comes-To-Broadway version, now is your chance to see a couple of terrific veteran Broadway stars giving it their all. I wouldn't advise missing it.

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