Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Little Night Music on January 20th

A Little Night Music is one of my favorite musical theatre works.  I love the 1973 original cast album and the 1990 New York City Opera production that was broadcast on Live from Lincoln Center, plus I have seen three other productions outside of New York.

It's a romantic comedy about the crossroads of love and sex and is centered around the aging actress Desiree who meets her former lover, Frederik, again after many years.  The story is complicated by her controlling mother, Madame Armfeldt, who has custody of her illegitimate daughter Fredrika, Frederik's very young wife, Anne, his brooding son who is her age, Henrik, Desiree's current lover Count Malcolm and his wife, Charlotte.   There's also Petra the maid, the only character who seems accepting of her lot in life.

I had huge expectations for this long awaited revival.  I wanted lush, sweeping, and above all, thrilling,  Unfortunately I was only thrilled to a certain extent that was thanks partly to the majority of the cast, and of course, because it's Sondheim's music and lyrics. 

In this revival, Catherine Zeta-Jones is Desiree.  Alexander Hanson is Frederik.  Angela Lansbury is Madame Armfeldt.  Henrick is played by Hunter Ryan Herdlicka.  Anne is played by Ramona Mallory.  Aaron Lazar is Count Malcolm and Erin Davie is Charlotte.  Petra is played by Leigh Ann Larkin. Finally, the role of Fredrika has been shared by Keaton Whittaker and Katherine Leigh Doherty.

I saw the first preview of A Little Night Music on November 25, 2009. While I felt disappointment toward the production, I walked away wanting to see the cast again, especially from a better seat.  I was in the balcony and normally, I don't mind balcony seats.  I enter with the attitude that I'm just happy to be there and the less I pay for a ticket, the more I see.    But not for this production.  It's so intimately staged, that I spent almost the entire time looking at the top of the actors' heads.   Also, it's hard to justify paying $52.50 for a really bad seat.   I sat there many times for Grey Gardens, but that price was only $26.50.  

My Mom treated for orchestra seats during her recent visit to New York.  It was her first Sondheim musical, not counting Gypsy.  We were in Row N, seats 7 and 9.  Unfortunately it was on the left side of the house - the entrance door/street side, under the mezzanine overhang.  I picked out the tickets via Telecharge - clearly picking out tickets online is not my strong suit.  Fortunately, the view was much, much better.   So, thanks Mom!

The things that initially disappointed me about this production still bother me - dark lighting, shabby-looking sets, drab colors, and most tragic, lack of an orchestra.  The stage lights are not only low, but also over the audience before curtain and during intermission.  It was so dark that I wasn't able read my Playbill or people watch (this was a terrible issue from the balcony seat).

Director Trevor Nunn wanted this production to be Chekhovian.  Was there romance and comedy in Chekhov?  I don't think so.  You know that Sondheim can do dark - hello, Passion - but if you've read the script or seen a production of A Little Night Music, dark isn't the word that even comes close to mind and certainly not Chekhov.

I wouldn't mind if there was no set at all - a few props would be fine to make it believable.  That's the point of theatre - it's about the acting of the story that makes it transportive.   But if you're going to have a set, be consistent with the book.  It's understandable that Desiree's digs would be shabby, but I think Frederik's home and certainly Madame Armfeldt's country chateau would be quite elegant.

The costumes in the first act are dreadfully morose - all blacks and greys.  This was particularly bad for the young Anne.  She is barely out of her teens and is wearing clothes that are much too mature for her and she looks as if she's in mourning.  She even talks about one of the benefits of her marriage is having so many clothes.

Also, because the orchestrations are minimalized, there is only a small band on a platform off stage right, rather than an orchestra in the pit.  In the balcony, it was hard to hear the band at all.  I learned that they had not had a full dress or tech rehearsal so it's possible that the sound designer had not had the opportunity to check the sound in the balcony.  In this orchestra seat, I was right below a speaker.  The sound of the band was better and I did hear some of the lovely intricacies of the score (still missing those French horn runs!).  However,  this also allowed me to notice some very odd sound affects - clip clopping of hooves and birds chirping that seem strangely out of place in this minimal production.

While the first act is long regardless of direction, this one seems particularly slow.   This is one that I would be tempted to second act, if it weren't for Angela Lansbury's Liaisons that doesn't come until near the end of the first act and is not to be missed.  When Desiree and Frederik meet again for the first time, the pace is so slow I wondered if they just didn't have anything to say to each other rather than it being nervous excitement and trepidation.   Mom and I were there on a Wednesday evening, so it's understanding that the cast would be suffering some exhaustion from the two show day.   Perhaps this slowed the pace further.  In some ways this was good - it subdued Ramona Mallory who seems to play Anne as if she is a hyperactive tween who has forgotten to take her ritalin.

I thought the rest of the cast was exceptional.  Angela's performance was in fact thrilling.  Her timing was impeccable and she delivered her lines with bite and wisdom.   She also brought me to tears, a rare feat and a real endorsement from me, with her recollection of the man who may have been the love of her life.   She was indeed the favorite of the evening, obviously for me, but for most of the audience who never lacked expression in their appreciation through loud laughter and long applause.

Alexander Hanson is an elegant performer and it's easy to see why he was imported from England to reprise the role of Fredrik which he played in the West End.   It's a matter of fact that Catherine Zeta-Jones is gorgeous.  I found her a little harsh initially, but by the second act it was easy to see her portrayal of disappointment and broken-hearted defeat.   It didn't hurt seeing her tears by the end of a very emotional  Send in the Clowns.

Erin Davie is fantastic as the caustic, self-loathing  Charlotte.  She doesn't hold back the misery.   For such a young actress, it's interesting to see her play this role that would normally seem likely for a more mature actress.     I also loved seeing Hunter Ryan Herdlicka again, who has found nuance in his performance as Henrik.  He translates Henrik's doubt and angst easily.

Teetering on the bomb of the evening was Leigh Anne Larkin.  She looks as if she's having fun, but she adopted a strange sets of accents for the role and never seemed to settle on one.   Her rendition of The Miller's Son was exuberant but full of odd pronunciation choices and she seemed to be on the verge of breaking the fourth wall at any moment.   Otherwise, she acts without fear and doesn't hold back.

For the second time, I was treated to a brilliant performance by Keaton Whittaker.  She's a lovely young actress with grace that belies her youth.  She was the only actor who seemed calm and comfortable that first preview and she has only grown in the role. 

By the end of the second act, I was sold.   I don't see myself dropping the kind of cash on this that I have on other Sondheim musicals (or plays with Angela Lansbury) (however, I'm sure could easily reach those monetary heights considering that this production cost twice as much as almost everything else I see), but I do want to see it again at least before Angela's contract expires, which is currently April 4th.


Elizabeth said...

Very interesting review, Sarah! I always enjoy long, detailed reviews with the reviewer's own personal opinions and takes on things. I could envision it all as though I were really there. And what a nice picture of your mother! She looks so happy to be there!

Unknown said...

I’m sorry I have to split this into two parts, but Google won’t accept it as a single comment. So, here’s Part I.

Your post regarding A Little Night Music was both thorough and thoughtful. Having now seen it twice myself, once during the week it opened and once on Jan. 23, I think that there has been some significant improvement in the interval, which I'll discuss below. I have also been fortunate to have had very good seats for both performances, and I may be considerably influenced by that fact. I am also clearly influenced in that not having seen the original in 73-74, I am not forced to consider this version relative to the Tony Award winning classic.

There are things about which we agree and opinions with which I disagree, sometimes strongly. I agree with the praise you lavish on Alexander Hanson, Aaron Lazar (who just became a father for the first time), Erin Davie, Keaton Whittaker (and I will echo for Katherine Leigh Doherty) and, of course, the incomparable Angela Lansbury. It is well deserved. I would lavish the same degree of praise on Catherine Zeta-Jones. She brings true star quality to the role, and renders what in my mind is a memorable performance, conveying just the right degree of wistfulness, poignancy, regret and humor role. She's not bad looking, either. In my opinion, both Hunter Ryan Herdlicka and Rebecca Mallory have grown into their roles. When I first saw the show, I though Herdlicka was a bit to much of a caricature, a bit cartoonish, but he has developed his character since then into a brooding, insecure and moody young man. I would have similar things to say about Mallory, who has toned her performance down a bit, but to me captures the whimsical, flighty and superficial aspects of her character.

We disagree somewhat with respect to Leigh Ann Larkin (Petra), although it's clear that she does struggle with dialect. To my ear, it was mostly an Irish brogue, but occasionally (and in one prominent line in particular) I heard a bit of a southern drawl. But if you can put that aside (and there is not one consistent dialect adopted by the cast as a whole so far as i could tell) she plays the role in wining fashion, flirtatious and bawdy at times, but thoroughly charming. She has clearly toned her rendition of "The Miller's Son" down since opening, with less of the "pole dancer" quality ascribed to her by Ben Brantley. Now it's more suggestive than overt, and to me (and, so far as I could tell from the applause to the audience as a whole), the song was an unqualified hit.

Unknown said...

And here's Part II.

We disagree most about the show's pacing and staging. The first act is indeed long, but to me it was not slow. The pauses in conversation between Frederick and Desiree seemed real to me. It's as if they had so much to say to each other, they didn't know what to say first or how exactly to say it. I could see them thinking, not reading lines. (By the way, the show now runs 2:47, about average for ALNM.)

Let me address the staging. Your statement that Trevor Nunn wanted the production to be Chekhovian, and commenting that you didn't think that there was romance and comedy in Chekhov is interesting, because it was actually Hal Prince (the original 1973 director), who, according to his autobiography, conceived the show as "a kind of Checkhovian musical". See: Prince, Hal. Contradictions: Notes on Twenty-six Years in the Theater. Dodd Mead,1974.

It should also be acknowledged that Sondheim, when asked about this in a interview that took place in June of 1982, stated that in his view "music and Chekhov don't go together." But at any rate, the concept was not originated by Sir Trevor.

I also have a different view of the costumes, the lighting and the set. To me, both the costumes and the rather dark lighting are reflective of the original Bergman black and white film on which the show is based ("Smiles on a Summer's Night"). But Sondheim himself talked about the perpetual greyness of Scandinavia, which I think is reflected in the staging of the piece. (Some of the original murkiness has been cleared up since opening, as there is no longer a fog machine in use.) As far as the set goes, I felt (as did the five other people who went with me to the more recent performance) that it was clever and innovative. We also didn't get the feeling that the furniture was "cheap". I acknowledge, however, that similar comments appear in many reviews of the production.

Finally, I think anyone who has gone to theater for more that 50 years, as have I, has fond memories of 25 person orchestras in a pit with a conductor in full view. But I honestly felt that these orchestrations were absolutely fine (even when compared to the OCR.) It's obviously true that the fullness and lushness of a full orchestra, (with your favorite French horn), is not there, but I didn't think it detracted one bit from the overall quality of the production. Jeffrey Sweet, a noted theater author, director, sometime critic and theater historian, had an interesting take on this when he wrote, in his NYT reader review, that he was "particularly impressed by the instrumental reduction. The original orchestrations are thrilling and lush (particularly as played by the full orchestra at the Opera), but these highlight less familiar aspects of the harmonies and offer new surprises."

So perhaps I would call this production great though not perfect.

Anonymous said...

nice post. thanks.