Monday, August 2, 2010

What Passes By . . .

The older I get the more I appreciate second chances and lost opportunities; and when I say "appreciate" (if I can go all Humpty Dumpty on your ass), I mean “be incredibly vulnerable to.” It’s all part of realizing that your yesterdays outnumber your tomorrows -- the roads you took, and the roads you could have taken, become places where you willingly linger and reflect, like rest stops which only serve bittersweet.

Currently, under the No Regrets column, you can file Seeing The Catherine Zeta-Jones Little Night Music. I’m not sad in the least that I missed it; from what I heard, instead of relating to the other actors, she spent most of her time on stage searching the audience for that camera with the red light flashing. And as much as I love Angela Lansbury, I really didn’t want to pay a hundred bucks to watch the equivalent of a live action three-camera shoot for PBS, so I passed. Until I heard that Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch were going in as the replacement leads, and I immediately said to myself, “I am really going to regret not seeing these two in this show.” So I did, last Thursday, during what turned out to be one of the press nights for the new-cast reviews which came out on Monday. (Heh--no wonder Stritch remembered all her lines.)

How was it? If, as I’ve heard, “It Would Have Been Wonderful” describes the Zeta-Jones/Lansbury show, you can take all those qualifiers away for the Peters/Stritch incarnation. I loved it. And because I did love it, I am now going to pick it apart a little, because why waste time picking apart something you don’t give a hoot about?

Personal bias: I think it’s Sondheim’s best show. If I had to say why, it’s because to me the whole is greater than the sum of the parts -- the lyrics are clever and brittle, but the situation is anything but, which means an actor has an eight-lane highway to play with in bridging the two. Plus it’s a comedy. If Sweeney Todd is Sondheim’s King Lear, A Little Night Music is Much Ado crossed with Anthony and Cleopatra, because there are indeed whole worlds at stake here, worlds well lost (or won) for love.

That sense of loss is something which Peters nails when she sings “Send In The Clowns.” But she takes a weird road to get there, a road down which she gets lost for a little while, and I can tell you exactly where it happens: in the first-act scene with Fredrik, when she responds to his request for a liaison, for old time's sake, by saying, “What are friends for?” as if it was a punch line and not a punch to the heart. From then on, Peters plays her lines out instead of in, like circus clown instead of sad clown, and keeps going to the same circus clown place for the rest of the evening, until the “Send In The Clowns” scene, where she finally (and beautifully) goes sad clown, and it breaks your heart. Part of me wonders if it’s a deliberate choice -- the surface archness perfectly sets up the swan dive into real emotion -- and if it is, it’s a tricky balancing act. Peters runs the risk of making you think that either she or Desirée is a bad actress, especially when she’s dueling with Erin Davie’s Charlotte in Act Two. Davie gives a note-perfect portrayal of a woman who has to laugh or else she’ll cry, and in everything she delivers there is both humor and sadness, bitterness and hope. It makes you want to see her do Jacques in As You Like It. She’s ably matched by Aaron Lazar’s Carl Magnus, who is just as pompous as you want him to be, and twice as ripped: here’s a guy whose body looks good both in perspective and the light.

Also bringing the wonderful: Alexander Hanson, who has that “I refuse to believe I’m not the romantic lead in this story” vibe that Guy Williams brought to Lost In Space. -- except that here, it totally fits the character. Hanson is happily self-deluded, but shows just enough self-awareness of the fact that his young bride could be his daughter to make his scenes with Peters, well, Bergmanesque. (Another great touch: of the two male chorus members who sing the commentary, one looks like Henrik’s twin and one looks like Fredrik’s.)

The other actors all have their circus clown/sad clown moments, with Hunter Ryan Herdlika’s Henrik firmly in the sad clown camp, and Ramona Mallory’s Anne neck deep in the circus. As for Leigh Ann Larkin’s Petra, the depth of her lasciviousness is more than a little jarring, given the time period in which this takes place. If a woman acted as openly horny as she does in the early 1900’s, even a maid, she would have been given either a lobotomy or a hysterectomy. Or both. Again, as with Peters, you wonder if this is a deliberate choice to make the sucker punch of “Miller’s Son” hit even harder. But when Larkin does the song, it’s just an extension of the lustiness she’s shown before. There’s no sadness under the desire; instead of an aria, it’s a pole dance. Plus it feels like she’s acting out choreography that was designed with someone else in mind. Whatever she’s doing, it plays like she still hasn't made it her own yet.

Not so Elaine Stritch. In her odd and completely modern way, she has made Madame Armfeldt totally her own creation -- there isn’t even a hint of Lansbury in what she does, never mind Gingold. It helps, of course, that Madame A is supposed to be from a totally different era -- just 100 years in the past, not 100 in the future. And yet it still works. Out of place is out of place, and in a weird way, out of place because you just rolled in from doing a cabaret act at the Rainbow Room works a lot better than out of place because you were batting your eyes at Ludwig of Bavaria when you were seventeen. The sense of dislocation is palpable. Something else that totally works: the way Stritch very deliberately, I think, plays to her reputation for dropping lines and getting lost. Madame A is just as sketchy, when it comes to memories, so part of the thrill of watching Stritch is not only hanging on her every oddly-delivered word, it’s wondering whether it’s her or Madame A who’s trying to figure out what to say next. (I swear to God, if she and Christopher Walked ever do a play together, every head in the audience will explode trying to keep up with their bizarre line readings. Like Walken, Stritch treats a script like a game of billiards where whoever hits the most bank shots wins. Plus she never hits the ball you think she’s aiming at.)

Stritch is also the only one the orchestra follows. (Out of necessity? Who knows? But it sure is fun to guess.) Everyone else in this production gets driven like a herd of operatic cattle, like the house manager has his eye on that three-hour time limit after which everybody gets paid overtime, and is banging a ten-count beat like an overseer on a slave galley. (This is especially noticeable in "Miller’s Son," which lasts about thirty seconds.)

All of which, as I said, means nothing next to the fact that I thought the show was wonderful. My advice to you is to go see it yourself, so that, like an old paramour reunited with a lost love, you can celebrate the diamond’s beauty by the way her flaws catch the light. Trust me -- you won’t regret it.

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