A Little Night Music: Walter Kerr Theatre, 1/8/10

14 01 2010

I have a Sondheim addiction.  When a good production arrives on Broadway, I have a terrible tendency for repeat visits.  Take the 2006 John Doyle production of Company, for instance.  I saw it a total of 7 times on Broadway.  In my defense, I took different friends and family members each time and always purchased cheap student rush seats, but 7 times nonetheless.  I also saw the beautiful Menier Chocolate Factory production of Sunday in the Park with George 4 times total: 3 times in London during summer 2007, and once more after it transferred to Broadway in 2008.  Perhaps because I have a fairly strong music background, I find Sondheim’s music endlessly fascinating.  (I think critics are finally moving beyond their initial claims that Sondheim is not “hummable” and is too “intellectual” a composer; there is both an emotional and intellectual depth to his music.)  I am a very detail-oriented person.  I like teasing apart the score, the performances, the design, etc.  You perceive a show quite differently through repeat visits, and Sondheim’s complexity lends itself to such repetition.

When I decided to make this last-minute weekend trip to catch Ragtime before it closed on Broadway, then, I knew that I would make an investment in the newest Sondheim revival on Broadway: Trevor Nunn’s production of A Little Night Music.  Little did I realize that the “cheap” balcony tickets would already be sold out, so I would be forced to make a bit more of an investment than a grad student can really afford.  This show marks the first time that I have ever spent above $100 on a ticket.  But it was a Sondheim starring Catherine Zeta Jones and Angela Lansbury, as well as fellow Duke grad Aaron Lazar.  Worth it?

Well … perhaps.  Angela Lansbury is always a delight onstage; although her role as Madame Armfeldt is rather minor, she has impeccable comedic timing.  In her Broadway debut, Catherine Zeta Jones exudes a remarkable, grounded confidence and stage presence that – for me at least – exceeds her “star presence.”  I am sure not all audience members were able to shake off the doubleness of “Catherine Zeta Jones as Desiree Armfeldt,” but she slipped into the role rather seamlessly for me – and I gained a newfound appreciation for “Send in the Clowns,” which I had always thought to be boring from my beginner’s piano books.  (They reduced all the harmonic complexities and took out the lyrics!)  I was especially proud of fellow Duke grad Aaron Lazar as Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm; he displays such a command of Sondheim’s lyrical wordplay in “In Praise of Women,” making thoughtful transitions between lyrics that may otherwise seem disjunct and choppy.  (She wouldn’t … therefore they didn’t … so then it wasn’t … not unless it … would she?)

The rest of the cast sufficed.  Ramona Mallory was more a caricature of Anne than I would have liked: exaggeratedly childish and annoying, with rather jerky and awkward transitions.  But the biggest drawback of this production for me was the orchestration. I ran across a fascinating article in the NY Times about recent Sondheim productions, reimagined as minimalist, chamber works with pared-down orchestration: “Sondheim Makes His Entrance Again, Intimately.”  I have seen most of these recent, pared-down productions: John Doyle’s reconceptualizations of Sweeney Todd and Company with actor-musicians, as well as the Menier Chocolate Factory’s Sunday in the Park with George.  John Doyle’s concept had a distinct purpose for paring down the orchestra; the actor-musicians’ attachment to their instruments became a meaning-making device.  In Company, the perpetual bachelor Bobby was excluded from his group of married friends by his lack of an paired instrument.  In Sweeney Todd, the demon barber’s tale was amplified in horror by reducing the lush orchestral texture to reveal more disturbing dissonances, originally hidden in a larger orchestration.  Sunday in the Park with George felt like an intimate lens on George as an artist due to the innovative video technology that drew the audience into his creative mind, alongside the tight, pared-down orchestrations and articulate performance by Daniel Evans.  Pared-down orchestration offered a personal, intimate connection to a central character in each of these shows.

Yet A Little Night Music is a sweeping waltz of multiple characters that now lacks its lush, luxurious musical force.  The “re-scandalized” waltz of desire is arguably the driving force of this musical.  Pared down to 8 instruments, the revival lacks this whirling, coupling and de-coupling dramatic push.  Crescendos are no longer natural swells from a large orchestra, but from electronic amplification of an already sparse sound.

A Little Night Music was worth seeing on Broadway; its stars are exceptional and, thankfully, draw in a crowd as much for their legitimate talents as for their movie star qualities.  However, I don’t think A Little Night Music would bear a repeat visit.  More accurately and tragically, I couldn’t afford a repeat visit unless I lived in NYC and took a risk on the limited number of available student rush seats.  More thoughts on Broadway economics to come …

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