Friday, December 3, 2010

In praise of women

I don't know about the summer night, but the gods were truly smiling on me the evening I went back to see A Little Night Music. I'd been putting it off, trying to come to terms with my mixed emotions. On one hand: Bernadette as Desiree! What could be more tantalizing? On the other hand: this thoroughly disappointing production! What I wouldn't give for a do-over. Erase the memory of this whole thing (especially Catherine Zeta-Jones's hilarious, horrifying Tony Awards performance) and start over, with a production custom-built for Bernadette and directed by, oh, anybody else. As they say, it would have been wonderful. Alas, that will never be; if I want to see Bernadette it's Nunn's Night Music or none at all.

Circumstances conspired to give me the best possible experience, and for that I'm very grateful (I only wish I could guarantee that you would have the same circumstances align for your trip -- and you'll have to hurry, because the show is closing January 9). First of all, unlike the last time -- when I got a rear mezzanine seat and paid too much for it -- I got a half-price center orchestra seat for a Tuesday-night performance, and was delighted to find the seats in front of mine unoccupied. Talk about an unrestricted view. When I entered the lobby I checked the "At this Performance" postings, holding my breath -- any time I have a ticket to see Bernadette, I arrive half-convinced it's too good to be true and she will not be appearing that day. But there were no understudies listed for Desiree or Madame Armfeldt, and -- oh happy day -- there was an understudy listed for Anne! I had quite literally been dreading seeing Ramona Mallory again, having found her performance "actively painful" the first time around, and fate had offered me a reprieve. I practically skipped to my seat.

I would love to be able to say that ALNM is an entirely different show now that it has a different cast, but you know that's not true. Of course, the production is much improved by the presence of Bernadette -- and, in a different way, by Elaine Stritch -- but I'm afraid it has not been improved around them. It is still a terrible mismatch of material and director -- a show whose charms are chiefly sophisticated and subtle directed by someone for whom "subtle" seems to be a dirty word. And however much the high-profile casting makes the show seem new, it still feels like the usual replacement-cast situation, left to its own devices and plainly suffering from neglect. For example, take the "turn off your cell phones" announcement before the curtain. It was written to be read by Angela Lansbury, in character: "Ladies and gentlemen, please allow me to remind you that the noise of ringing bells from telephones is bothersome to performers and your fellow audience members alike..." and so forth. The idea being that it would be "funny," and perhaps scene-setting, to hear these instructions in Lansbury's highly recognizable voice. But Lansbury is gone, and Elaine Stritch reading the same dialogue would be simply bizarre. It would call attention to how miscast she is as Mme. Armfeldt. Yet they didn't want to keep the Lansbury recording as a relic of the past (perhaps for the same reason). So what did they do: write something new to be read by Stritch, or perhaps something for Peters? No; they took the same script they used for Angela Lansbury and had it read by a neutral male voice. The path of least creativity. So now there's no joke, it's just weirdly stiff for no reason. It does, however, set an accurate tone -- it tells you to expect directorial choices that don't make sense and only call attention to themselves.

The opening of the show continues the feeling of choices made without any regard for the whole. Why start with Henrik? Does this production somehow emphasize his perspective? (No.) Why move "Remember?" to the beginning? Is nostalgia a major theme of the evening? (No.) When this production is being promoted and presented as a star vehicle for whoever's playing Desiree, why bring that actress on with the rest of the cast to waltz around the stage in half light at the top of the show, suggesting an ensemble approach (as in the original, pre-CZJ incarnation in London)? Isn't it odd that we "see" Bernadette, in character, long before she makes her official entrance later? (Yes.) Doesn't this piling on of false starts rather obscure the actual thematic frame of Mme. Armfeldt's "Watch for the summer night to smile" speech? (Yes.) And so on and so on. The whole opening feels like a string of choices made, at random, to make the show feel more chamber-like for the Menier Chocolate Factory milieu, and then not adjusted for Broadway. And nothing says "No one has given this production serious thought in a long time" like uncertainty among the cast about whether or not British accents are called for. As far as I know there are no Brits left in the cast. Elaine Stritch and Bernadette Peters are just talking like they normally do. But for some reason the rest of the cast have not abandoned their pseudo-British line readings, and so now we have -- for example -- little Fredrika speaking her lines in an effortful British accent, even though both her mother and her grandmother are speaking in their normal American voices. And the show is set in Sweden.

As before, the show runs too long and is painfully paced. And no, it's not all Stritch's fault. She's definitely stretching out the running time with her strategic pauses (and/or memory lapses), but at least those pauses have a dramatic function. It's the scenes she's not in that really drag their feet. When Frederik and Anne go to the theatre to see Desiree perform, the sequence, which ought to be snappy, seems to go on forever. Ditto the scene when Frederik and Desiree are caught together by Carl-Magnus: it's bedroom farce! Move it along, people! Even Bernadette is reduced to an unseemly amount of mugging just to fill in the gaps. And while I liked Bradley Dean as Carl-Magnus (much better for the part than Aaron Lazar, who looked like a little boy playing soldier), his "In Praise of Women" would be greatly improved if he picked up the pace and dropped some of the gestures. That's a problem with most of the musical numbers -- staged with a lot of nervous and aimless "business," and then the performers wonder why the punch lines aren't landing. If ever a score provided the opportunity, and the excuse, to just stand still and sing, this is the one. And the second act is painfully elongated by unnecessary reprises of songs from earlier in the show. Howsabout less "let's hear that song again" and more "let's make it work the first time," eh?

The slow pace goes hand in hand with the overabundance of mugging and pantomiming. It starts with the Liebeslieder singers, who I think are misused here. When they first appear (and sing "Remember?" -- why?), they're zombielike; later they are far too actively invested in the action. I expect the Liebeslieders to be arch and aloof, Greek chorus-like, letting the lyrics do the work -- not pulling faces and waving their arms around. It's distracting but not exactly entertaining, and certainly not clarifying. Their function is to voice a kind of internal monologue for the other characters -- they provide an emotional commentary on the action; they set a mood. When they sing "The Sun Won't Set," they're meant to be commenting on the curious circumstance of perpetual twilight, not encountering it for the first time. But here, it's like they've never been to Scandanavia before. "Eight o'clock...Twilight?!?" And here's how you know this approach is not just bad-in-my-opinion but actually wrong: that number is staged as though the hours they name are actually passing, and any reasonable audience member would therefore assume that the scene immediately following takes place at nine p.m. or later...until Mme. Armfeldt expresses her shock that weekend guests would arrive earlier than five p.m. In any other production, Mme. Armfeldt's line would sound like slightly obvious exposition (e.g., "Where could he be going at five to seven with that sawed-off shotgun?"), but thanks to the mishandling of "The Sun Won't Set" it comes off as completely disorienting instead. Wow, nominate that director for a Tony! (Thank God they didn't.)

One more detail I can't resist complaining about: while I'm not necessarily put out that "Silly People," restored at the Menier Chocolate Factory, has been re-cut from the show -- God knows the second act is long enough as it is -- perhaps the staging around the spot where the number went might have been adjusted as well? Because I swear I did not know until just now, when I read this review, that "Silly People" had ever been restored in the first place, and yet it is completely obvious from the way the scene is staged that Frid once had a song there and now doesn't. Watching him build up to the song and then abruptly exit reminded me of the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail when the prince in the tower keeps threatening to break into song ("I'd rather...just...sing...") and his father keeps cutting him off ("No, no, stop that!"). I mean, this is amateur stuff.

Back to the mugging and pantomiming: the worst offender (at least when Ramona Mallory is out) is Stephen Buntrock as Fredrik, who seems to have no faith in his songs' ability to communicate things. Certainly the direction has done him no favors, but still, where is Fredrik, besides in the shadow of his leading lady's spotlight? Feingold complained about Andrew Hanson in the original cast: "When Egerman, half asleep, murmurs Desiree's name, Nunn has him sit bolt upright in bed and bellow it." You know, so we dummies in the audience would GET that he's DREAMING about her. Well, Buntrock does that too, but it gets worse; he follows up the "Desiree..." with a smoochy face, and then a gesture with his tongue, to make it absolutely clear what he's dreaming about DOING to Desiree. Because why be risque when you can be lewd?

Resisting the understatement and sophistication in this show is a terrible way to go about interpreting it, and not just because Mme. Armfeldt's "Where is style? Where is skill? Where is forethought?" stings. It seems to me the point of ALNM is the way these grownups (and not-quite-grownups) are caught up in farce in spite of themselves. They're fools for love, not in the stagy way of characters in a comedy by Racine, but in real life; they are sloppy and out of control and, at times, they know it. That's what makes "Send in the Clowns," "Every Day a Little Death," and most of the other songs so devastating; the characters see their own folly but despair of finding a way out. It's what makes "The Miller's Son" work as an eleventh-hour number -- Petra isn't fooling herself (except she sort of is). In this production, though, Nunn goes for broad and farcical whenever he can, and as a result the characters never emerge as actual people.

One major exception is Erin Davie as Charlotte, who has only gotten better. She has the audience in the palm of her hand. As Henrik, Hunter Ryan Herdlicka is playing a caricature of "brooding" -- as if "How comical you look!" were the only clue he had to the character. He even pronounces words in an odd, exaggerated way, betokening I don't know what. Ramona Mallory's understudy, Jessica Grove, was much, much better, and I can't tell you how much my experience was improved when I wasn't automatically cringing every time Anne entered. She still had to fight the direction, but she can't help that. I also saw another understudy, Sara Jean Ford as Petra. Leigh Ann Larkin was, for me, one of the bright spots in the cast when I saw it last time, and one of the few things I was looking forward to revisiting. But I loved Ford's Petra too. Her version of "The Miller's Son" didn't blow me away the way Larkin's did, but that may be because (a) I was expecting it to be good, and (b) the rest of the show wasn't nearly as bad. It felt like part of the fabric of the show rather than a very rare bright spot, and that wasn't a bad thing. (Perhaps Larkin's version feels more integrated now as well.)

But you want to hear about the stars! Let's start with Stritch: miscast, yes, and she's not even trying to adjust. But I wasn't blown away by Angela Lansbury's take on Mme. Armfeldt, and Stritch brings a truly enjoyable spontaneity to all of her scenes. (It's getting harder and harder to figure out how much of Stritch's unpredictability is intentional and how much is just senility, but fortunately that's one respect in which she's perfectly suited for the role.) I never thought I'd say this about this song (I love Hermione Gingold and all, but I started skipping that track on my CDs a long time ago), but Elaine Stritch's performance of "Liasons" is absolutely spellbinding. She doesn't quite seem to be playing the character in the script, but she is playing a thoroughly developed character nevertheless -- one who is thrilled to be telling you about all her conquests and adventures. More than any performer I've ever seen, Stritch sings every lyric like it has just occurred to her for the first time. Perhaps that's necessitated by the prompts I presume she's getting -- I mean, damn, that is a hard song to memorize -- but if so, she's folding it into her performance brilliantly. The orchestra (directed by Stritch's longtime musical director Rob Bowman) takes her lead, which is exciting in itself, especially when, in general, the orchestra is so small and so well hidden they might as well not be present at all. She keeps them guessing. And just when it feels like she may have lost the thread, she surprises you by going back to the tune as though she's delighted to find it waiting for her. Angela Lansbury seemed to me to be just trying to get through "Liasons" intact; Elaine Stritch made me hear it with new ears. That alone is a reason to see the show.

As for Bernadette: if you don't already know what a thrill it is to see her onstage, I don't think I can tell you. But I can say that she makes you realize just how bad CZJ was. Before, it felt as though the whole show was straining to show the star in her best light; now it feels as though the rest of the show is cast into shadow by the much greater intelligence and capability of its star. I wondered if "The Glamorous Life" had been restaged, because everything about it -- its emotional impact, its effectiveness introducing Desiree -- was unfamiliar, but then I realized that was just because the first time I saw it I was totally preoccupied with the way CZJ struggled just to sing the verses. This time I wasn't watching a performer perform, I was watching a pro. And where CZJ could hardly keep up with the "Darling I miss you a lot..." bits, Bernadette managed to act every one of them, even giving Elaine Stritch something to react to. She's in character every moment, and it's a thrill.

I wish a better director had come along to make better use of Bernadette's gifts; I would like to see "You Must Meet My Wife" staged with some sensitivity. The song doesn't get "funny" until the second time through -- the first part is actually very sweet -- but Buntrock just seems impatient to get there, and Bernadette fills the void with a lot of self-parodying cuteness. She's better than that, and so is the show. Her "Send in the Clowns" can't help but be anticlimactic when you know half the audience is waiting to be blown away. It's just about exactly what you expect. But that song has never been my favorite, and she manages to make each lyric meaningful -- you feel as though there's a specific thought in her head for every metaphor. (Erin Davie does something similarly riveting with "Every Day a Little Death.") It will banish the memory of CZJ's bizarre Tonys turn from your mind, and that alone is worth the price of admission.

At last, I can stop obsessing: I've seen it and I've told you everything I know. Here is what I wrote the first time I saw this production of ALNM. Here is what I wrote about the 2010 Tony Awards. If you've seen it, I want to know what you think.

1 comment:

collegekidblues said...

I saw the show the first performance after Bernadette and Elaine took over. I was enthralled by Bernadette. It is magical to see her on stage, everything is so effortless. Elaine at the time was clearly still struggling to make sense of it all, forgetting most of "Liasions" as well as a good portion of her lines. Henrik drove me insane. All of his serious scenes became comic fodder as there was no sensitivity or actual feeling behind his performance. Other than that, I definitely fell for the show. Pieces that I had never quite understood before began to make much more sense and I am so happy I actually got to see Bernadette on stage.