Wednesday, August 18, 2010
A Little Night Music
Bernadette Peters and Alexander Hanson play lovers with bad timing.
Last week TD and I went with our friend Mark to see A Little Night Music on Broadway, the luminous show set in Sweden at the the turn of the last century, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Hugh Wheeler. You probably know that Catherine Zeta-Jones, who won a Tony in the role, and the great Angela Lansbury were recently replaced by Broadway legends Elaine Stritch and Bernadette Peters.
Bernadette Peters plays Desiree Armfeldt, an actress on the European stage with a unsuccessful love life, and Elaine Stritch plays her mother, Madame Armfeldt, who has regrets of her own. Stephen Sondheim music, nineteenth century costumes, and Elaine Stritch and Bernadette Peters – what's not to love? TD and I also saw the New York City Opera version in 2003 starring Jeremy Irons who cut a very elegant line indeed as Frederik Egerman.
You won't believe this but I worked backstage on a production of A Little Night Music in high school. In Utica, New York, the Munson Williams Proctor Institute art museum held a summer arts festival and mounted musicals under a big tent on Genesee Street. I volunteered on A little Night Music, and loved the complexity and sophistication of the show. However, on the two nights it was presented, rain poured down and pounded on the tent; I don't think the audience heard one single word.
The music in the show is wonderful, and it's one pleasure after another, including "You Must Meet My Wife," "Liasons," "Every Day a Little Death," and "A Weekend in the Country." In the second act, Desiree sings the show's renowned song, "Send in the Clowns." This is what The New York Times said recently: "For theater lovers there can be no greater pleasure than to witness Bernadette Peters perform the show's signature number with an emotional transparency and musical delicacy that turns this song into an occasion of transporting artistry...[it's] an indelible moment in the history of musical theater."
That's a lot of pressure, with a build up like that! Everyone in the audience was waiting for that moment. I'm happy to say that with tears in her eyes she does indeed really pull it off; I had never before her performance fully understood the heartbreaking situation that this character is in. The audience applauded deeply with approval, almost before the song ended, like at the opera.
I adore Elaine Stritch who is now 84 years old, and her one-woman show, Elaine Stritch at Liberty, at the Public Theater was one of the best nights ever in the theater. No one is funnier on stage, but to me the character of Madame Armfeldt is enigmatic and inscrutable, a mysterious link to ancient Europe shrouded in veils with her memories of "the castle of the king of the Belgians."
Madame does tell a poignant story at the end of the show though about rejecting a suitor in her youth because he gave her a wooden ring. "He could have been the love of my life," she says with longing.
I also have to remark that the set was extremely simple, nonexistent really. TD said that in the 1973 Broadway original, the Tony-nominated sets were ornate and they actually rolled an antique car on stage. Those were the days. Now Broadway tickets get more expensive and the sets get simpler. TD also noticed that it was a not a full orchestra but a pared down one.
But these are economic issues. I think it's safe to say that A Little Night Music is an American masterpiece. The supporting cast was excellent, especially Leigh Ann Larkin as the lusty maid Petra who sings a showstopping "The Miller's Son," and Erin Davie as the dryly sardonic Countess Malcolm. The production is a joy of music and romance and waltzing twists and turns. When the cast takes their bows in their creamy summer Edwardian linens, it's an elegant celebration of American artistry
and two great ladies of the theater.
It's a Broadway kiss.
Blog bonus: I found this video on Playbill.com, which offers some moments from the show.