Isn’t It Rich?

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When I saw Catherine Zeta-Jones screech through “Send In the Clowns” during the Tony Awards telecast, looking and sounding like she just escaped from Nurse Ratched’s ward, I felt relieved I didn’t shell out those 110 buckaroos for a ticket to the first-ever Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music.  But, almost miraculously, that same week of CZJ’s Tony fiasco, just like a pink ribbon-festooned thunderbolt from the big musical theater palace in the sky, Night Music’s producers announced that Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch, musical theater legends and consummate Sondheim interpreters, would replace CZJ and Angela Lansbury as the actress Desiree Armfeldt and her mother for the rest of the run (well, until November 2010).  The shriek that emanated from my loft upon reading the news was something that would not have been out of place in Nurse Ratched’s ward, for sure.  I absolutely had to see this production – the ultimate musical theater aficionado fantasia; Peters and Stritch performing Sondheim together is the Broadway musical equivalent of a foie gras-white truffles-champagne dinner.  And it is quite the marvelous production (despite my pre-existing quibbles with the work itself, and the mystifying artistic decisions that director Trevor Nunn made), with Peters, in my book, giving the definitive rendition of “Send In The Clowns”, arguably the definitive Sondheim song, and Stritch, mesmerizing, unapologetic Stritch, performing a unique, will-never-be-seen-anywhere-else interpretation of “Liaisons”, another classic of the Sondheim catalog.

I’ve always found Hugh Wheeler’s book for A Little Night Music to be a little too text-heavy, a little too-lengthy, and somewhat clunky in its transitions, especially compared with its exquisitely compact source, Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 dazzling film, Smiles of a Summer Night, about changing romantic relationships among lovers from different generations over a summer weekend in turn-of-the-century provincial Sweden.   I have also always been perplexed by the placement of the beautiful and blisteringly truthful song “The Miller’s Son”, sung by the maid Petra, right after “Send In the Clowns”, which has always made it seem anti-climactic.  And that problematic placement is especially pronounced in this production, when Peters, as the aging, suddenly grounded Desiree is unsurpassable in her interpretation of “Send In the Clowns” and Leigh Ann Larkin as Petra is merely serviceable in her “The Miller’s Son” (but more on that later).  The afterglow that you’re supposed to be experiencing after a highly satisfying “Send In The Clowns” becomes more like, uhmm, sweat stains under your armpits.

And I wanted my delirious, delicious afterglow, dammit, because Peters’ “Send In The Clowns” is a highlight of my theatergoing life.  “Send In The Clowns” is almost like a brilliantly conceptualized mini-play set to music, subtly but also masterfully painting the anguish, the sense of loss, the disappointment, the potentially delusional hope, of Desiree realizing, in her middle-age, that she may never have had a truer love than her former lover Fredrik.  Peters doesn’t just sing the song (and she sings it beautifully as expected from someone who originated two of Sondheim’s most memorable characters, Sunday In the Park with George‘s Dot and Into the Woods‘ The Witch) but also acts it, astoundingly, clearly revealing to the audience Desiree’s memories, indecisions, and complicated relationships.  It is a great performance, not just a great musical theater performance, consistent with her work throughout the rest of the production – her Desiree is seductive but also weary, delicate-seeming but also warm-blooded and bawdy, self-involved but also smartly self-aware.

Stritch gives a terrific performance, as well, as Desiree’s rich mother, Madame Armfeldt, her first on Broadway since winning a Tony for her one-woman show, Elaine Stritch at Liberty, in 2004.  And I could imagine that her take on the role couldn’t be farther from Lansbury’s, because Stritch displays none of the put-on aristocratic airs that are traditionally associated with Desiree’s mother; she is jaded, withering, firmly tethered to the ground, a 1940s broad crossed with a cabaret act in turn of the century corsets.  It’s a unique interpretation, but she also makes us believe that this old, frail woman was a steely, calculating butterfly in her youth who seduced rich men and their fortunes, and then broke their hearts.  And her take on “Liaisons” is also more acting, than singing.  Of course she hits the notes (hey, she first performed one of the most iconic Sondheim songs of all time, Company’s “Ladies Who Lunch”), but she superbly acts through it, giving the indelible phrasing, meaningful pauses, and thoughtful inflections that make the song not just a celebration of the art of love but also a strong, passionate rebuke to the younger generations to remember that intrinsic artistry.

Alexander Hanson, the sole hold-over from Nunn’s Menier Chocolate Factory staging, is sexy, funny, and wonderfully confused as Fredrick (and if Desiree’s former lover is this daddy-hot, I’m not sure why his young wife Anne insists on keeping her virginity.  I’d jump him in a heartbeat).  Aaron Lazar as Count Magnus, Fredrik’s buffoonish rival for Desiree, doesn’t have the larger-than-life swagger, say, that Michael Cerveris brought to the Chicago Shakespeare production, but he is energetic and sings beautifully.  Erin Davie as his wife, Countess Charlotte, is appropriately self-deprecating, but seems to be gangly tomboy than glamorous nobility, although, like Lazar, she is a terrific singer as well.  Katherine Leigh Doherty as Desiree’s teenage daughter is radiant and impressively holds it together given that she has to play against Peters and Stritch most of the time. My problem is with the three other major roles.   Ramona Mallory’s Anne is quite annoying, actually, too studied and artificial.  Leigh Ann Mallory’s Petra has the Nordic look down pat, but performs the wonderful “The Miller’s Son” like she’s auditioning for America’s Got Talent:  it’s a generic performance, with none of the earthiness and sad wordliness that I’d like to see in a song about using sex to advance socially (qualities that a pre-Grey’s Anatomy Sara Ramirez demonstrated in truckloads at the Ravinia concert version).  Then there’s Hunter Ryan Herdlicka as Henrik, Fredrik’s repressed seminarian son who’s pining for Anne, his stepmother.  I’m not really sure why he’s playing this role.  He struggles with many of the complicated Sondheim notes in “Later” (made even more complicated by Jason Carr’s streamlined orchestrations); and although he is blandly handsome, he is also quite wooden, never really convincing in his intensity and enthusiasm.  Nunn’s decision to cast Herdlicka is as perplexing to me as his decision to use David Farley’s shabby-chic-meets IKEA-warehouse-sale set, full of distressed mirrors, faded carousel wallpaper, garish upholstery, and cheap painted wood.

But, ultimately, none of these matters since the Peters-Stritch-Sondheim dream team still prevails.  The non-stop cheering during the rousing, hearty standing ovation at curtain call just proves that fact.

A Little Night Music is in an open run at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th Street, New York City.  It’s worth the plane fare to NYC, I guarantee you!

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