It occurs to me that I never wrote a review for “A Little Night Music.” I was kind of amazed by this, considering my love for the production, but am happy to give a review of my thoughts.
For starters, I was privileged enough to see both sets of stars. The first session starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury . The second starring Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch. As a result this review is lengthier than I like.
Both casts had serious wow factors, and I consider myself lucky to have seen both.
Catherine Zeta-Jones interpretation of the role Desiree was very professional. Zeta-Jones used what the fact that she is utterly stunning to her advantage, and all of the character remarks about how they wished her beauty had faded over time were easy to understand. Though Mrs. Zeta-Jones is 41, she still looks as beautiful as she did in “The Mask of Zorro” which was filmed in her late twenties. I don’t think that a woman being 41 and beautiful is difficult to believe, but the level of beauty that Mrs. Zeta-Jones possesses would be remarkable at half her age. Her looks aside, Mrs. Zeta-Jones did not seem to rely to heavily on the fact she has such a pretty face. Her vocal work was clearly enunciated, and well sung. At the time, I found her interpretation of “Send in the Clowns” moving, though I left thinking that the song is not as important as time would have us believe. In addition to being well spoken and well sung, Zeta-Jones was a true actors friend. Her scenes with the rest of the cast were beautifully conducted, and at no time was it apparent she was more famous than anyone else. I appreciated this humility, and it made the entire show feel much more like an ensemble, which is how the show should feel.
By contrast, Bernadette Peters performance was less constrained but equally refined. Peters is clearly aware that everyone who knows who she is, knows that she is an excellent vocalist, and therefore she chose to use her songs to demonstrate her idiosyncratic comedy skills. Being rather familiar with the score of the show, I did not find this departure to be jarring, but a woman in front of me constantly asked her husband what it Bernadette Peters had said. I rather enjoyed her interpretation, but wondered if I would love it if I was not so familiar with the actress herself. Mrs. Peters has a certain style when she does performs Sondheim, and, although I am a fan, it can be somewhat perplexing if you are not familiar with the show. That said, Peters made moments that were generally funny, utterly hilarious, and she found ways to add even more humor to the show than I even thought possible. Mrs. Peters is also quite lovely, and I am amazed that she looks as good today as she did 20 or 30 years ago. The allusions her character makes to proper maintenance of her appearance were easy to believe, and at their very mention I constantly wondered how it is she has remained so lovely.
Mrs. Peters waltzed through the fist act with such ease that I forgot that the role was difficult. In that way, she surpassed Zeta-Jones performance. The fact that Peters chose not to really sing her songs made it easier on her, whereas Zeta-Jones clearly knew that she needed to prove she would be able to handle “Send in the Clowns” to her audience. Mrs. Peters however turned that song into a true piece of art. I don’t think I really ever understood how important each line of that song was, nor how cutting the lyrics true meaning is, than I did when I saw Mrs. Peters perform it. Although it was not really enough to bring me to tears, I think it might have been had I not seen the show earlier that year. I am, however, happy to proclaim that it was the finest moment of acting a song I have ever seen to date. This, unfortunately, knocks Christiane Noll out of the top spot, for her stunning performance in Ragtime.
The other two stars are easier to compare.
Angela Lansbury is my clear winner for the best portrayal of Madame Armfeldt. Her performance was beautifully sung, tender, mischievous, humorous, and heartbreaking. Her performance of the song “Liasons”, which is perhaps the song in the show I liked least prior to seeing her perform it, was spell binding. Mrs. Lansbury does not quite have the voice she had in her youth, but she is still a very good singer. The particular technique she employs was once thought to be the norm, but is one I fear is dying out as belting becomes more popular in musical theatre. This is not to say that Mrs. Lansbury’s performance had not fight in it, rather she managed to being bitchy in a way that you knew was out of love and concern for her daughter and grandchild.
Elaine Stritch chose a much darker road than Mrs. Lansbury. While both are clearly available options, Stritch chose to make Madame Armfeldt more bitter and jaded than felt necessary. She also chose to ad-lib much of the script, and it was difficult to see the other actors help her find her place again when it was clear she forgot her lines. Despite the occasional line flub, Elaine Stritch played to her strengths. The short jibes she makes at the other characters, all of which are deserved, were so biting that one could not help but feel sorry for anyone who dared to speak to her. While it was fun to see the characters to beautifully put in their place, it tended to be so painful that pauses were inserted to allow the characters a chance to recover and resume their antics. This led to the show being much longer, and while I enjoyed seeing Mrs. Stritch demonstrate her perfect comedic, albeit bitchy, timing, it did not endear me to her character throughout the show. Mrs. Stritch also chose not to sing more than a few unsteady notes throughout the entire show. This meant she somewhat monologued her song, in a manner that I did not find particularly enjoyable, but I was fascinated by her ability to turn the lyrics into a soliloquy. This is not to say the performance was bad, and I think Stritch was needed to keep Bernadette Peters from chewing the scenery too much. Lansbury was a softer woman, which matched Zeta-Jones softness. Peters was brash and load, and Stritch’s harshness helped balance her out.
Both times I saw the production I had the same woman playing “Anne Egerman” the new wife who has managed to maintain her virginity despite being married for 11 months. This role is not easy to sing, and although her character is a bit spacey, she does need to be funny. I felt Ramona Mallory did a great job of reinterpreting the role, her use of multiple vocal registers to diversify her comedic timing was a welcome change to previous incarnations which seem to believe Anne is merely capable of making high pitched squealing noises when she is excited or distressed.
Erin Davie, who played Countess Charlotte Malcolm, really deserves a huge amount of credit. While the role is funny as written, Mrs. Davie’s interpretation is by far the best I’ve ever seen. She found humor throughout the script, but never betrayed who her character was.
Leigh Ann Larkin, who plays Petra, gets a special mention for her work during “The Miller’s Son.” This “eleven o’clock number” is not easy for most, but Mrs. Larkin’s performance is utterly captivating. Given the fact that we see so little of her character, the song is not an easy one to do. Larkin manages to use the song to reveal much about her character while effortlessly entertaining the audience. There are few women who have successfully pulled of the role of Petra, but Larkin’s performance is an absolute success. She is a clear rival of D Jamin-Bartlett, who originated the role. To give one an idea of the difficulty of this role, and Mrs. Larkin’s achievement, D. Jamin-Bartlett was hired for the original production solely because she could carry the song. She usurped an actress who lost the role due to her inability to sing and perform.
Hunter Ryan Herdlicka’s performance as Henrick is incredible. He sings the rather difficult high note in “Later” better than anyone else I’ve ever seen.
Finally, I believe it only fair to give Stephen R. Buntrock credit as Fredrick Egerman. His performance is beautifully sung, and he plays against the men and women in the cast with absolute grace. It takes an incredible actor to be able to play against two very different Desirees. Although he originated the role of Mr. Lindquist I had the pleasure of seeing him as an understudy with Catherine Zeta-Jones.