Friday, December 3, 2010
A Little (More) Night Music
BY MARY SHEERAN
Without actors bringing some humanity to their performances, a Sondheim musical can rely too much on the cleverness of the words and concept and consequently feel cold and intellectual. This was my reaction to the latest production of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music, which I saw with Retta back in December 2009 (has it been a year?!).
I'd not seen this musical before then, but I'd heard and read so much about it, and I practically grew up hearing "Send in the Clowns," without knowing the context except what I imagined it to be. When I finally did see this production last December however, I was disappointed. It seemed flat and cold, even trivial. What was all that fuss about? Catherine Zeta Jones, the Desiree of the moment, was much ballyhooed (And may I say that I for one am tired of awards going to actors simply because they do something brave; this is to be commended, but that's what all actors do!!!-end of editorial) and she looked lovely and certainly sang competently and with charm. But she did little more than that. The only light in that tunnel of a show proved to be Angela Lansbury as Madame Armfeldt; her performance was so full that it overshadowed everyone else's. Unfortunately, that unbalanced the play, which, without her, was pretty weak.
Oh, but wait. This Thanksgiving, I attended A Little Night Music again, with some apprehension, even if the cast included Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch.
I needn't have worried. Peters (in photo with Stephen R. Buntrock) proceeded to show what an experienced and talented artist can do. She infuses the play with feeling and dimension, finds every nuance of humor, pain, and wryness. She plays an actress for all she's worth; she doesn't just show she's an actress while doing the bouncing on a carriage scene; she throws in a little over the top stuff throughout the play, overplaying and underplaying in a careful sketch of an actress and woman we catch at a vulnerable moment. In other words, Peters can slap Sondheim into being alive.
I could also see Peters and Lansbury as daughter and mother (there's a cast), with the contrast between her mother's brittle "Liaisons" philosophy and her own "Send in the Clowns." Peters brought in all facets of Desiree to her climactic song - an occasional and characteristic over the topness, her deep feelings, her pain, her irony, her humor, her intelligence. It was all there, plus tears that were Desiree's tears and felt deeply enough that Peters went off pitch - all in character, a breathtaking and brilliant moment that I only realized was breathtaking and brilliant when the play was over. The play is concerned with memory and "later" as well as imagined realities, so that the "Send in the Clowns" scene resonates as the time when"Now" enters the lives of the characters. The whole play drives toward it. Ah, yes! Now I see! How extraordinary the structure of this play appears when it is well performed.
Elaine Stritch is wonderful, God love her, but I couldn't believe her as Madame Armfeldt. This Madame was way too healthy, for one thing (I kept thinking she'd get up and dance), and Stritch aims for the punch lines and hits them. Nothing subtle about it. Even her death was a punch line, no poignancy about it, she just leaned over and died, bringing a laugh. Is it supposed to be funny? I remember mourning Lansbury's Madame Armfeldt as she died last year, but the trouble with that version of the production was that Lansbury's performance was so real that her loss left the stage empty. And, by the way, I couldn't believe Stritch when she said she'd lost her illusions. She didn't play it that way. She was the wise cracking aunt, and nothing more.
The cast shimmered, particularly Buntrock as Fredrik Egerman, Jessica Grove as Anne Egerman, and Leigh Ann Larkin's "The Miller's Son" was even more pungent than I remembered. Keaton Whittaker's Fredrika was charming.
Writer/singer Mary Sheeran’s new novel is Quest of the Sleeping Princess (www.questofthesleepingprincess.com), which unfolds during a gala performance of the New York City Ballet, She has also sung through several operas, cabarets, and song recitals in New York, including several performances of Songs From the Balanchine Repertory, which led to this book. Her first novel, Who Have the Power, an exploration of cultural conflict, feminism, and Native American history set on the American frontier, was published in 2006 (www.whohavethepower.com).