Sunday, August 15, 2010
Broadway in love and war (Theatre - South Pacific & A Little Night Music)
Two musicals in two weeks, and on Broadway no less, that has to be a record for me and the Ragazzo. We saw the Lincoln Center Theater revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific last week and last night, Sondheim's A Little Night Music with two heavily announced cast replacements - Bernadette Peters replacing Cathrine Zeta-Jones and Elaine Stritch replacing Angela Lansbury.
South Pacific is as classic as they come and this production demonstrates that Rodgers and Hammerstein (and the director Barlett Sher) really knew what they were doing. Set in the Asian theatre of war during World War II, it manages to spin out 11 great songs with memorable melodies, tell a classic Broadway love story, have some great laughs, break your heart, seriously treat the subject of racism in American (this was written in 1949, mind you), create a good amount of suspense, and although it lasts three hours I was scarcely aware of the time. It was great to hear secure singing voices that could handle legit as well as belt voice production rather than over-miked pop yelling. Paulo Szot who played Emile de Becque, the French plantation owner on the Island with whom American Ensign Nellie Forbush falls in love, is an opera singer (as Ezio Pinza who created the role was). He showed a range of vocal colors and an ease of stage presence not common to opera singers. Laura Osnes as Nellie was charming and open, if a little green as a performer.
The production was long on character development rather than establishing stereotypes through behavioral shorthand as so many Broadway productions do. This is important since one of its subjects of the show is racism. Even the smaller, non-singing roles of the commanding officers were given detailed, lived-in-the-moment performances. There was a large male chorus of soldiers and Bartlett Sher made the smart and, no doubt, accurate choice to usually have the black and white soldiers working separately on stage. The choreography for the male chorus was particularly strong. Christopher Gattelli found a masculine guy-like repertoire of movements that let them move like their characters - American soldiers in the 1940s - and not like Broadway dancers. I thought Danny Burstein a stand-out as Luther Billis - hilariously funny, but played as a person not a clown. Sher's production with its fluid, cinematic set design, its detailed characters, strong singing, and topical story would travel well. Since so many of Broadway's recent successful musical productions have been British imports, I left this one hoping that the exchange might go the other way - any chance for a London transfer?
A Little Night Music is as rich a concoction as Stephen Sondheim ever composed. The story is adapted from Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night, a farcical meditation on the experience of love as we age. His musical inspiration was Brahm's Liebeslieder Waltzes. The sophisticated lyrics are strictly Sondheim's own, intellectualizing the world to hold his heart at arms length from the rest of him. Trevor Nunn's production has been roundly criticized but I'm not sure why. The set was simple and flexible, panels like antique mirrors framed the stage, through which could be seen either wall surfaces when the setting was indoors or trees when the setting was outdoors. My one complaint of this production would be that it was over-miked. Alexander Hanson, as Fredrik Egerman was the perfect mixture of assured performer and clueless middle-aged man, chasing after his youth by marrying a girl of 18 who is so terrified she refuses to have sex. His singing and acting were seamlessly blended, although if he had sung behind the beat a bit less I wouldn't have minded. Leigh Ann Larkin brought a no-nonsense freshness to her playing of the maid Petra and sang her great song I Will Marry the Miller's Son with intelligence and aplomb.
Bernadette Peters plays Desiree Armfeldt, an actress with whom Fredrik had once been involved and to whom he returns in dismay when his new marriage is on the rocks. Peters is a veteran performer of Broadway and of Sondheim in particular (she created Dot in Sunday in the Park with George). She has made her reputation playing tart, perky characters with her trademark voice, a combination of a little-girl cry, a sweetly produced top, and a brassy Broadway belt. But she is over 60 now (although she doesn't look it) and when I heard she had taken this role, usually played by a non-singing actress, I envisioned that she might be trying to re-make herself. Right from her entrance, hidden in a company dance number of waltzing couples at the show's opening, I could feel her presence because when she switched partners, her contrasting relationships to each were clearly expressed (although only subtly demonstrated outwardly). The highlight of the evening was her deeply inhabited Send in the Clowns - living the wounded irony of her character with a devastatingly raw emotion.
The production's other star - Elaine Stritch - is surely no typecast for Madame Armfeldt, the worldly dowager who has dandled, it seems, most of the European continent's male royalty of her day to attain her position of power. Now in her late 80s, Stritch is known for her her wry, sarcasm-soaked, roar of a voice, and an utterly transparent vulnerability that bleeds touching desperation, but she is all-American. Not a touch of any other continent across the Atlantic in her voice or manner. I found this a strange, idiosyncratic, but gutsy choice. Unstereotyped, sure, but that is what exciting performing art is all about. As a director and actor I loved casting or playing against type to reveal things about character more common choices never would. What Stritch brought to the evening was an amazing ability to be sharply attuned to her present moment, always responsive along with the ability to imbued the past of her character with blood and bone. Armfeldt's reminiscences of men that she shares with her grand daughter are not just the charming lines read by an elderly actress. It's so easy to say the words "Oh, I remember when...." in a shaky voice and to be applauded for one's past roles. But when Stritch as Armfeldt remembers a man, her person glows from the inside with the pleasure of that memory. She gave every word she spoke sense, and depth, when she could remember her lines. I suspect Stritch may have occasionally read from the text, and that was okay with me. In fact, I wish she had read more so that she had been more secure. Stritch's weakness as an actress has always been a desire to give such import to her text that she plays every word rather than moment to moment. One could fault her for that in A Little Night Music, but I can't say that it diminished my pleasure of seeing her in this role, or my enjoyment of Sondheim's sophisticated confection of a musical.