Tuesday, August 24, 2010

REVIEW: A Little Night Music (Peters & Stritch)

Review of the August 21 matinee performance at the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York City. Starring Bernadette Peters, Elaine Stritch and Alexander Hanson. Direction by Trevor Nunn. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler. 3 hours, 10 minutes, including 20 minute intermission.

When I heard the re-casting news for A Little Night Music, I was ecstatic. I mean two Broadway legends on one stage was almost impossible to believe! Add to that that I have always been a huge fan of Bernadette Peters, particularly after Into the Woods and The Goodbye Girl (she was fantastic, all reports to the contrary), and who couldn’t help but love the First Broad of Broadway, Elaine Stritch. Her salty, bristly delivery and her croak-singing of the “Ladies Who Lunch” are the stuff of legend. I already loved the production, and now had a reason to return, as excited as I was when their predecessors opened the show.

I am, therefore, very sad to report that while the show as a whole is still in great shape - and in some cases, better shape - the two legends do not bring anything extraordinary to the show. In fact, I have to admit that I didn’t like it nearly as much. Perhaps part of my disappointment comes from unrealistically high expectations and/or from what I know now are reviews that are the very definition of “hyperbole.”

The biggest problem with the show itself persists. Act one goes on forever, with so much set-up ,it goes from interesting to boring about half way through. But now, it is even longer, by a full ten minutes by my watch, added to, no doubt by the one act play that interrupts the act, “Liasons,” which is easily 2 or 3 minutes longer under the care of Ms. Stritch. Here is also the quandary, yes the number plods along at a pace that surely tests the baton arm of the conductor. But it is also the 10 best minutes of her entire performance. She nails the song, even with pregnant pauses that test the credibility limits of the “where was I?” lines in the song. Stritch talk-sings her way through the song as if she is thoroughly disgusted and ready to throw in the towel with the world as classless as it is. But one has to wonder how heads of state were seduced but such a tart mouthed, bitchy courtesan. The paradox here is that while this Madame Armfeldt decries the modern lack of style, breeding and class, one can’t picture her as demure or even close to subtle. Perhaps she met all of her Dukes and Princes at some bar, where she was knocking back a stein or two of the local brew. This woman has had a hard, grounded life, but is hardly believable as some sort of society standards setter. Still, the number works because Ms. Stritch has impeccable comedic timing, a flare for the slow burn and can be forgiven mainly because it is the only time she’s onstage when you aren’t worrying if she’s going to get her lines said, let alone right. You never for one minute forget you are watching Elaine Stritch, though you occasionally do remember she is playing Madame Armfeldt. She is a legend, and I respect her for that if nothing else.

The young lady who gets my star of the year award, simply for holding her own on stage with such a potential train wreck is Keaton Whittaker, who played Fredrika at the performance I attended. The vast majority of her scenes are alone and with Ms. Stritch. Were it me, I’d be so tempted to help with lines or try to cover up the exhausting pauses between words and phrases. Instead, Miss Whittaker is the very embodiment of professionalism and adoration. (It is very clear that Ms. Stritch’s immediate co-stars are as smitten with her as the rest of us.) Still, it can’t be easy.

What makes perfect sense about this new pairing is that Ms. Peters and Ms. Stritch have the same sense of humor and down to earth style. And in that sense they complement each other wonderfully, just as Ms. Zeta-Jones and Ms. Lansbury did previously. Where the original pair matched each other grace for grace, regal gesture for regal gesture, these two Armfeldt gals complement each other in toughness and the ability to laugh off most every difficulty they face. The former pair hid behind an aloof veneer of detached snobbery and entitlement; the current pair hide behind a more aggressive veneer of detached dismissal and self-deprecating humor. They laugh at themselves before anyone can laugh at them. In that sense, both pairs work. But they sure do change the tenor and tone of much of the show as it is now.

Much has been made of Charles Isherwood’s “moment in musical theatre history” quote from his New York Times review of Ms. Peters. And in a very real sense it is musical theatre history, as this diva makes fewer and fewer Broadway appearances. The truth is that any time spent watching her work is time well-spent. There is no doubt that she belongs in that small pantheon of Broadway leading ladies that will stand the test of time. She looks fabulous, bounds around the stage with an energy that starlets half her age don’t seem to muster and more. Most importantly, she is so present in her performance, so “of the moment” everything she does seems spontaneous, even as you watch her Desiree make each calculated move she is forced to make. A true comedienne, Peters matches wits perfectly with her co-star, and has even managed to bring some more warmth and humor out of her Fredrick, the even better than before Alexander Hanson. Peters has warmth and grace to spare, and you can’t help but feel that it is a way her Desiree outwardly distances herself from her mother, rather than as a tribute to her upbringing (which it could not plausibly be).

Further, she has not lost her voice at all, and one wishes the character had more to sing. And the signature song of the show, “Send in the Clowns” is in excellent hands, even as she sobs, sniffles and wipes away a fountain of tears throughout. It is a lovely, somewhat moving image that she creates. But there is also that nagging feeling that at least some of it is an act, mostly because in giving the role a more comedic turn, some of the preceding glimpses of pathos are now non-existent. The result is a teary deluge that matches the tone and epic quality of the moment, but in retrospect seems just a tad “plugged in.” Hanson remains the perfect scene partner, and having seen this valid, if less revelatory performance of the number, I can now see that Trevor Nunn had more than a little to do with capturing the most perfect moment currently on a Broadway stage. Let there be no doubt, you are in for a treat and getting your money’s worth when La Peters takes the stage. But don’t expect the life-changing experience the ads now promise you.

The rest of the supporting cast has improved, even as they’ve had to forcibly slow down during full cast scenes. Aaron Lazar has really found the perfect pitch that keeps his ego-driven pomposity and supercilious ways from being too much a caricature. Similarly, Hunter Ryan Herdlicka has really added much needed nuance to the melancholy of his character - his subsequent giddiness at the end is now much more believable. Most improved, however, is Ramona Mallory who has toned down her silly-girl giggles, using them to advantage now rather than as a constant, and has smartly infused her performance with glimpses of the woman Anne will become.

For me the best two performances of the day were Leigh Ann Larkin’s superbly earthy, sweet, funny and honest Petra, a mass of sexual energy. Her “The Miller’s Son” remains a highlight of the entire production. The other belonged to Betsy Morgan, who was on as Charlotte (normally played by Erin Davie). Ms. Morgan gave the role a nice approachability. Upper-class with just the right snootiness when called for, but also the “everywoman” sensibility that makes you feel for her situation, revel in her mischievousness, and cheer when she finally wins. Her “Everyday a Little Death” was terrific, as was her chemistry with both Anne and Carl Magnus. And she was great in the supper-picnic scene, making a fool of herself in the name of friendship and love.

Isn’t that just what A Little Night Music is really about?

Grade: B

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