Monday, July 12, 2010

CD Review: A Little Night Music

With the re-opening of A Little Night Music featuring Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch, I thought it most apropos that we take on last look back at the controversial revival's original cast and their performance on the New Broadway Cast Recording.  Sondheim fans, like myself, must of course have this in their collection, and it is important, not only for capturing the Broadway debut of  Tony winner Catherine Zeta-Jones and the possibly final Broadway role of the legendary Angela Lansbury, but also because, at two discs in length, it offers a more complete record of the score and much of Hugh Wheeler's witty, smart and sharp dialogue.

Title: A Little Night Music

Artist: The New Broadway Cast Recording
Label: Nonesuch Records/PS Classics
Number: 523488-2
Format: Double CD
Case: Single Jewel Case, with a 2-sided insert.  CDs and booklet packaged in full-color box
Booklet: Black and white production photos; complete lyrics and included dialogue

Of the Show, I Wrote:  "The Tony-winning musical A Little Night Music is being given a sublime, beautifully rendered and amazingly clear revival at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Boasting the lead talents of no less the five time Tony winner Angela Lansbury, Oscar winner Catherine Zeta-Jones and London transplant, Alexander Hanson, not to mention a supporting cast of many of today's up and coming main stem talents and a multiple award-winning director, Trevor Nunn, this revival is nearly perfect in every way.  Given the austerity of the production - minimal scenery, minimal props, and a scaled back orchestra and the deliberate focusing of the play with a Chekhovian slant, it really calls to notice that much of the first act is a careful, deliberate, and, unfortunately, slow series of expository scenes. That is, plainly, an awful lot of set up, character introduction and plot points."

"It might be the Chekhovian-minimalist approach Trevor Nunn has taken with the piece. That the characters are broad types has never really been in question, but this approach crystallizes those types and brings them to the forefront. Brilliantly, however, this only serves as a bright counterpoint to the darker undertones, nuances and complications of these characters. In short, Nunn has heightened the simplicity to reveal in astonishing clarity the complexity of both the characters and their stories. This may just be the first Broadway musical in High Definition."

Of the Performances, I Wrote:  "From the late in the first act mini-play, also known as Angela Lansbury's definitive rendition of "Liaisons," through and including the classy curtain call, this A Little Night Music is everything a musical should be.  When she takes the stage, you are riveted, hanging on her every word, and more importantly, on her every glance. While her one solo number doesn't afford her the opportunity to do any sort of belting, she wrings every possible drop of emotion out of the song, easily vacillating between the troubling here and now and the glories and disappointments of her past. One look, one drop of her heavily lashed eyelids, conveys as much, if not more of Madame Armfeldt's story. In one song, she is teaching a master class in acting, musical theatre and grace."

"Alexander Hanson is the lone transfer from the London production, and it is immediately apparent the moment he takes the stage. He gives a commanding, fully realized performance. Each of his numbers are beautifully sung and wonderfully acted. He, like his co-stars, takes every opportunity given to him and runs with it.  I expected that Catherine Zeta-Jones would be good, though I wondered how an actress long from the stage would be able to sustain a character and sing and dance for a solid three hours, rather than the little snippets of moments captured on camera over however many takes and cuts. Having seen this remarkable performance, I feel almost ashamed of myself for thinking so. She is a tour de force as an actress, a stunningly beautiful woman, and she makes Desiree a dazzling, never dull, always complex, always thrilling person to watch. And I will go out on a limb here to say that she may just be giving the definitive performance of 'Send in the Clowns.'"

"Finally, I must mention the ensemble of actor/singers, who provide gorgeous vocals for the overture, not a little scenery changing, and wry, well-acted commentary to each and every scene. They are Stephen R. Buntrock, Marissa McGowan, Jayne Paterson and Kevin David Thomas. They provide the glue and flow of this production, never slowing it down."

Of This Recording, I Say:  Minus the lengthy books scenes in Act One, this CD moves at a brisk pace - it is almost a surprise when the first disc is over.  As one might expect, the entire cast is giving all out performances on the recording, pros that they are.  The three leads are exemplary, particularly Mr. Hanson and Ms. Zeta-Jones, both of who act their songs as well as they sing them, adding much needed depth and nuance to the lyrics.  It is Ms. Lansbury, though, who benefits the most.  After all, she has the least to sing (her superlative "Liaisons" remains as superb on recording a it did in performance), but here is given the opportunity to recreate her razor-sharp, glib and blustery performance as much of her dialogue is included to help mold the recording for listeners not as familiar with the piece.  It should be noted, too, that her young scene partners Katherine Leigh Doherty and Keaton Whittaker as Fredrika offers just as lovely a performance with this legend.

As on stage, the ensemble offers some truly lovely, sometimes stunning performances here, particularly in the "Overture/Night Waltz" and "The Sun Won't Set/Night Waltz II" which open each act and here, each disc.  Similarly, the spectacularly cast supporting players are terrific here.  And I have to say, minus the visual of her fussy, sometimes too much so, performance, Ramona Mallory makes an even better Anne.  Aaron Lazar and Erin Davie, with much of their scene work included here and in isolation, also do very well by their roles.  And Leigh Ann Larkin's "The Miller's Son" is as robust and fulfilling.  Finally, Hunter Ryan Herdlicka offers a fine, if wonderfully torment performance as Henrik.

The packaging of this recording is lovely and befitting such a recording.  The booklet, at some 96 pages is a complete print recording, and offers several black and whit production photos which capture the essence of the physical production.

Finally, I must address the other aspect of controversy that seems to hound this production: the paring down of the orchestra.  Naturally, there are benefits and problems with this.  But when you consider that the composer himself went on record to say that this is closer to his original vision than the first production, how can one really quibble?  Jason Carr's orchestrations make the 12 piece group used here sound full and lush without being overbearing.  When coupled with the vocal arrangements of the ensemble, the more lush interludes come out just fine.  And the lack of too much instrumentation really serves to bring forward the wit and wisdom of the lyrics as they never have been before, much like the recent revivals of Sweeney Todd and Company.  Still, there are times when a little more music would have been nice.  And while ultimately, I prefer the performances of this version, I can see the need for having both renderings in one's collection.

What remains to be seen, of course, is how the show will change under the leadership of its new leading ladies, both equally talented and as legendary as their predecessors.  One has to admit Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch are completely different.  I'm betting they will be terrific.  But how they effect the delicate balance of this underrated revival remains to be seen.  Let the vultures descend tomorrow.

Grade: A+

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