Sunday, October 10, 2010

A Little Night Music 2.0 - A Review

Posted by David
I recently had the pleasure to attend a performance of the current revival of Stephen (can we just canonize him and be done with it?) Sondheim's musical A Little Night Music, performing at the Walter Kerr Theater.  The production originally opened starring Catherine Zeta-Jones along with Angela Lansbury.  These two leading ladies have left the production and their roles are now being assayed by Broadway veterans Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch, respectively.

I did not see the production with original cast of Zeta-Jones and Lansbury, so I cannot compare the current incarnation to the previous, and perhaps that is for the best as I would have hated to have that little comparative voice whispering in my head throughout the performance and spoiling my fun.
Let me be up front and say that I love A Little Night Music in and of itself, and there is much in this current production that sustains and bouys my love for this Sondheim gem, not the least being the performances of Peters and Stritch.  They are joined by a strong cast, some who were in the original cast and others who were brought in, or more delightfully, were promoted from smaller roles (something I always approve of).

Bernadette (if I may be so bold as to refer to her as such) is a warm and strong presence in the role of Desirée Armfeldt, the aging actress beginning to feel the inroads of regret from choices made and chances missed.  She is in turn comic and poignant, and consistently in the right balance of each throughout the performance.  She lends her signature Bernadette-ness to the proceedings and melds them seamlessly into her performance.  Her much touted rendition of "Send in the Clowns" shakes the dust off of this potential cliché and gives it heart-bruising clarity.

As her imperious and aged mother, Madame Armfeldt, Elaine Stritch basically holds the audience captive every moment she is on stage.  I heard an audience member mutter "she has all the best lines," but he failed to realize that her character does not.  Stritch merely takes every moment and effortlessly spins it into gold.  Even the occasional line flub was transformed into a master class on comic acting genius.  In addition, her performance of "Liaisons" is a revelation.  Stritch was never a song-bird to begin with and time has only added to her signature rasp, so instead of trying to pretty up the number, she transforms it into almost a spoken-word performance that while disregarding any pretense at melody or meter is none-the-less mesmerizing.

Bernadette's romantic foil is Frederik Egerman, played delightfully by Stephen R. Buntrock (promoted from the smaller role of Mr. Lindquist).  He has a rich baritone and excellent comic timing and matches Ms. Peters wonderfully throughout the performance.  Continuing on in the role of Anne Egerman, Frederik's child bride, is Ramona Mallory who provides an inspired comic performance, and a gorgeous soprano, as a constantly nervous young woman ill-at-ease in her new position as the female head of household and a wife expected to fulfill certain matrimonial duties.

Hunter Ryan Herdlicka contines as Henrik Egerman, Frederik's bookish son who is studying for the ministry and is secretly enamored of his father's young bride.  Herdlicka is charmingly insecure and has delightful comic timing, although I wish he were surer of the top notes in his musical numbers.  The Egerman household is completed by Petra, the servant girl who is saucily played by Leigh Ann Larkin.  Larkin admirably walks the fine line of making Petra a sexy and ribald character without making her into a whore or a sexual clown.  She also gives us a rendition of Petra's signature "The Miller's Son," in show-stopping style.

Providing both comic and poignant counterpoint to the proceedings are the Count and Countess Malcolm.  Bradley Dean (promoted from the small role of Frid) is an excellent Carl-Magnus, full of bluster and ego, a gorgeous baritone, and a torso that illicited not a few admirable murmers from audience members when he briefly doffs his shirt in Act Two.  Erin Davie is impeccable as Charlotte, Carl-Magnus' long-suffering wife.  Charlotte is one of my favorite roles in the show and Davie does not disappoint, providing razor-sharp comic timing as well as a radiant poignancy late in the show.

Back at the Armfeldt family manse, we also have Desirée's daughter, Frederika, played charmingly by Keaton Whittaker at the performance I attended (the role is shared between Whittaker and Katherine McNamara). The role of Frid, Madame Armfeldt's servant, is competently played by Ron Bohmer.

The cast is completed by the five liebeslieders, who serve as something of a Greek chorus throughout the production, as well as background roles as servants, actors, guests and townfolk.  Mr. Lindquist (Ben Davis), Mrs. Nordstrom (Jayne Paterson), Mrs. Anderssen (Jessica Grové), Mr. Erlandson (Kevin David Thomas), and Mrs. Segstrom (Gina Lamparella) all sing the music expertly and provide some charming comic moments of their own, but I was frustrated by the production's use of them.  I feel it is important to make a clear distinction of where these five exist in the life of the play and I felt that line was muddied to an extent by the direction.  But this is a minor quibble.

Overall, I was quite pleased with Trevor Nunn's direction.  He created a warm and lively production that never seemed cramped or awkward on the relatively small Walter Kerr stage and he finds moments to be innovative while never jarring.  The set design by David Farley uses simple turntable walls to effectively create the well-appointed Egerman, Malcolm and Armfeldt homes and the rich costumes, also designed by Farley, beautifully complement the actors.  Hartley T.A. Kemp's lighting and Dan Moses Schreier and Gareth Owens sound design complete the picture creating a lovely ambiance and mood throughout the changing locals of the production.

If you are a Sondheim fan, this a definite must-see production, and if you are new to Sondheim, this is an excellent production to wet your feet with, as it is one of his most accessible.  I highly recommend this and urge you to see it with Peters and Stritch doing what they do best in a production that allows them, and the entire cast, to shine.  I left smiling.

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