A Little Night Music
For the first seven months of its run, Trevor Nunn’s revival of Steven Sondheim's acclaimed 1973 musical A Little Night Music—its first on Broadway after three in the West End—boasted both a Broadway legend in Angela Lansbury (taking on the entirely wheelchair bound role of Madame Armfeldt) and a Tony-winning turn by Catherine Zeta-Jones in the role of Desirée Armfeldt: the actress's musical theater debut after winning an Academy Award in 2003 for her work in the musical film adaptation of Chicago.
When the contracts of the two female leads expired in June 2010, the show was, in a marketing masterstroke, extended for an additional seven months with not one but two legends of musical theater—both Sondheim alumni—in the departing actresses’ stead: Elaine Stritch—who appeared in the original run of 1970's Company; her legendary performance of that show’s best song, “The Ladies Who Lunch,” is still widely regarded as her signature—replacing Lansbury, and Bernadette Peters—who has received Tony nominations for Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods and a 2003 revival of Gypsy—a show for which Sondheim provided lyrics early in his career—replacing Zeta-Jones.
What makes the (until Sunday) current incarnation of the revival so unique—and, in a way, so brilliant—is the fact that neither Stritch nor Peters have ever been particularly acclaimed for conventional singing “talent”; each is, as their supporters will often say, in a class all her own—often sacrificing tone and pitch for “affect”—and what each lacks in technical ability is hardly even worth addressing given the powerful emotionality with which Peters has always infused each of her performances and the warmth, humor and soul of Stritch's patented "talk-singing." Here Peters gives a characteristically funny and ultimately heartbreaking performance as a fallen ingénue, stealing every scene in which she appears and competently playing off of Stritch's meticulously honed comedic timing.
While she may be the stronger natural singer of the two, their respective limitations never prove all that much of a problem. In fact, the show's centerpiece and most famous song, "Send in the Clowns," was written by Sondheim with a weak singer in mind: Glynis Johns, the original Desirée. As Johns was unable to sustain notes, he wrote a song with short, clipped phrases ending in consonants, the resultant "blank space" rendering the song all the more poignant and heartbreaking: its copious space allowing for the performer to truly “act” the song. Also, as the singer must abruptly end each phrase on a rather doleful note, this creates the illusion of her being choked up and “not able to go on”—you get the idea. While, admittedly, Peters does struggle through the song at times, in an extraordinarily happy accident, the end result is a painful and beautiful performance that soars triumphantly in its deficiencies: it is mournful, even "beaten down” at times.
Though it hardly reaches the artistic apotheoses of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the aforementioned Company or Anyone Can Whistle, A Little Night Music’s score is still one of Sondheim's strongest: in keeping with the story's “deceptively” bacchanalian tone—that is, of forced revelry and merriment to disguise the characters’ shared heartbreak and regrets over lost, forsaken or mistaken love—the score is based almost entirely upon cheery waltzes with “ghostly” undertones. The stark, dull, near-dreamlike lighting design of Hartley T A Kemp serves to heighten this effect, most effective during the show’s overture and finale: mysterious, barely lit, entirely mute scenes of the various characters waltzing unsurely with their respective partners. And though the show only produced one veritable standard in "Send in the Clowns," other memorable songs include "The Miller's Son"—of which Leigh Ann Larkin gives an equal parts demented, hyper-sexualized and ingenious performance—"Every Day a Little Death," "Later" and "A Weekend in the Country."
The octogenarian Elaine Stritch's performance is almost impossible to characterize: eccentric but deeply affecting, downright bizarre to the point of transcending criticism, somehow effective; her rendition of (the rather long) "Liasons" is especially vexing—though, miraculously, a complete success. Routinely dropping both notes and lyrics, Stritch turns the song into something of a mad rant: a woman at the end a long life recounting the romantic exploits of her youth. In one breath, she bemoans her loss in a gruff, cigarette-bitten honk, in another, she returns to life in vibrant animation, gesticulating wildly, a mad, possessed twinkle in her eyes transplanting both her character and the audience to this colorful space of the past. As for her foibles as a singer, though far from a lyrical singer, it cannot be denied that her voice is itself something of an aesthetically pleasing, smoke-addled, whiskey drenched percussive instrument, defying any conventional classification: it would be condescending to label her a “contralto.”
While Peters gives a consummate, funny performance, Stritch is undoubtedly the heart and soul of the production, her performance its crowning achievement: she is staggeringly good. One never questions the choice of casting a raspy-voiced Detroiter (who tends to ad-lib Americanisms) in the role of an affluent Scandinavian patrician, because the wisdom and wistful melancholy she exudes in the role is so genuinely heartwarming and endearing: most touching are her scenes with her granddaughter Fredrika (alternately played by Keaton Whittaker and Katherine McNamara). In sharp contrast, the two male leads—Stephen R. Buntrock (taking over for Alexander Hanson; oddly enough, Buntrock played Mr. Lindquist earlier in the run) and Hunter Ryan Herdlicka (in his Broadway debut) as Frederik and Henrik Egerman respectively—may be the stronger singers but, at times, their performances are a bit too "musical theater-y" for their own good. Also rather good is Ramona Mallory (another Broadway debut) who deserves some commendation not only for her rich, powerful and very loud voice but some adequately excellent comedic acting.
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