Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - August 1, 2010
A Little Night Music Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Hugh Wheeler. Suggested by a Film by Ingmar Bergman. Originally Produced and Directed by Harold Prince. Directed by Trevor Nunn. Choreography by Lynne Page. Set and costume design by David Farley. Lighting design by Hartley T A Kemp. Sound design by Dan Moses Schreier, Gareth Owen. Wigs and hair design by Paul Huntley. Make-up design by Angelina Avallone. Orchestrations by Jason Carr. Cast: Bernadette Peters, Elaine Stritch, Alexander Hanson, Erin Davie, Leigh Ann Larkin, Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, Ramona Mallory, and Aaron Lazar, Stephen R. Buntrock, Bradley Dean, Katherine Leigh Doherty, Katherine McNamara, Betsy Morgan, Jayne Paterson, Kevin David Thomas, Keaton Whitaker, Karen Murphy, Erin Stewart, Kevin Vortmann.
Seeing someone metamorphose from timeless and illustrious to a dusty relic over the course of a single song is the kind of magic that only the theatre can inspire, and then only when all its elements are in perfect alignment. And for the brief span of time it takes for Peters to sing Stephen Sondheim’s most famous song, hiding every tear and barricading each telltale vocal crack behind a yard-thick wall of outward acceptance, this revival — and, in fact, the whole of musical theatre currently on Broadway — could not possibly be better.
That’s a good thing, because the rest of this reconstituted revival — including the balance of Peters’s performance and that of her new costar, Elaine Stritch — is a train wreck. But like any transportation-related disaster, just try to look away. The spectacle of an already pitiful revival of one of Sondheim’s most glorious musicals (written with librettist Hugh Wheeler) devolving into complete caricature is, sadly, among the most riveting shows in town.
Much of the credit must go to Peters, who is doing a remarkable impression of someone doing an impression of her. Every tic is on view: the kewpie-doll cutesiness, the vocal delivery that skyrockets from barely audible growl to coloratura cooing within milliseconds, the screwed-up face that indicates frustration or concentration — it’s all here. True, Peters has built much of the last quarter century of her career on such ministrations — check out the original-cast videos of her in the Sondheim musicals Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods — but she is usually able to dial it down or refocus it. In the 1999 revival of Annie Get Your Gun (for which she won a Tony) and particularly the 2003 revival of Gypsy (for which she should have), Peters shattered expectations by making those signature moves and her eternal youthfulness integral aspects of Annie Oakley and Madame Rose. Like the greatest of stars, she made it impossible to tell where she ended and those characters began.
Desirée, however, is a different animal. She’s not questing for absolution as Annie and Rose are — she’s already acquired it, and now she wants someone to share it with. She has, in other words, already grown up. When Catherine Zeta-Jones originated the role in this revival, she portrayed Desirée as grasping the final, fraying threads of her pre–middle age vivacity, which is about as far as the gambit can be realistically taken. Peters is doing her usual “girl grows up” shtick, which has nothing to do with a Swedish stage actress caught between the lawyer Frederik Egerman (Alexander Hanson) and the doltish dragoon Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Aaron Lazar), both of whom are married. You are therefore aware, every moment she’s onstage, that Peters is playing Peters.
That trick might work in other circumstances, or perhaps even other Night Musics, but it doesn’t play here. The dour and life-denying atmosphere in which Nunn has steeped this formerly frothy musical comedy doesn’t allow for that kind of approach. This is, after all, a production that has been rescored by orchestrator Jason Carr for eight pieces (Jonathan Tunick’s original orchestrations were for about three times as many), and demands that everyone from Hanson (a former Joe Gillis in Sunset Blvd.) to Lazar (Raoul in The Phantom of the Opera and Enjolras in Les Misérables) to Erin Davie (Little Edie in Grey Gardens), who plays Carl-Magnus’s fatalistic wife Charlotte, speak-sing most all their songs. Brash, bravura, and simply sexy fun are no longer the order of the play.
So what before was merely turgid and stuffy, punctuated only by brief flashes of brilliance from Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury as Desirée’s mother, is now utterly unhinged. None of the other performances has changed a whit — Hanson remains bewilderingly stodgy, Ramona Mallory is shrillness personified as his virginal wife Anne, Leigh Ann Larkin is an uneven cipher as the erotically wise maid Petra, and Lazar and Davie can’t overcome their disuse — so theatrical universes collide and immolate.
Yet when Stritch sings that number, “Liaisons,” there’s not a hint of regality or reality. She makes you feel you’re in her apartment, listening to her stories of Old Broadway, complete with the raspy-voiced, urban-heeled timbre that has become Stritch’s trademark. What she does not do is convey elegance, erudition, or even the basic understanding of the world of the play. In Stritch’s hands, “Liaisons” isn’t a lament for ages gone by, it’s a comedy song. Most actresses use the lyric “Raisins,” the ultimate destination of the post-coital repast (after sumptuous feasts, and then figs), as a wistful dagger for cutting through a coarser history. Stritch barks it, not because Madame Armfeldt would but because the actress knows she can get a laugh — and, indeed, at the performance I attended, the audience adored obliging her.
As a result of this, music director Rob Bowman’s suspended-animation pacing, and back phrasing that would be criminal in any other production of any other musical comedy, Stritch elongates “Liaisons” to an unthinkable seven minutes — practically the length of the Act I finale, “A Weekend in the Country.” Such shenanigans are par for the course for Nunn’s incarnation, which has never paid much heed to the buoyant spirit Sondheim and Wheeler injected into their writing. But one would have thought that Sondheim pros like Peters and Stritch would know and do better than making this wake of a mounting into a joke. Alas, no. Send in the clowns? Don’t bother, they’re here.