A Little Night Music

October 17, 2010 | By | COMMENTS

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I once read that Stephen Sondheim told the orchestrator of the original production of “A Little Night Music” that, when the music began, the scent of musk should waft over the audience. This anecdote stuck with me because, strangely, one of my favorite aspects of going to the theater as a child (and still, somewhat, today) was the smell. The mix of women’s perfume with whatever natural scents occur from the sets & the make-up were rather intoxicating to my young, impressionable nose. And so it was with great excitement and olfactory curiosity that I attended the revival of “A Little Night Music” today starring Bernadette Peters and Broadway’s greatest living war horse, Elaine Stritch.

Unfortunately, the primary scent I picked up from this production was that of dust. I don’t blame Hugh Wheeler, who wrote the book, or Stephen Sondheim who wrote the enchanting score. Blame must go to the director, Trevor Nunn, who sucks all the beauty and magic out of the show with drab, sad sets and gloomy blue lighting. My friend Corey was in the audience and when we chatted at intermission he said: “I just wish they’d pick up the pace,” snapping his fingers as he said it. When my dad told the woman at coat check at Camapgnola (his favorite restaurant) about the show–we talked to her about it because she, rather amazingly, had the same name as the protagonist, Desiree–he told her to “bring a pillow.”

But I have to confess, I’m a sucker for musicals, especially Sondheim musicals, and so I forgave this show all its trespasses. It was wonderful to finally learn the story that connected the songs (I’d had the CD for a long time but had never seen a production) and, best of all, to watch Bernadette Peters own the stage as she sang the show’s most famous number, “Send In The Clowns.”

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I’d never known how that song fit in, dramatically, but when it comes along in Act Two it feels like the whole show’s been building towards it. Structurally (and it’s been 4 years since drama school, so go easy on me here) it may very well be the climax: after all, the show’s engine is a question of whether Desiree, the slutty, unsettled actress will be “rescued” (her word) by the child-marrying, deep-voiced lawyer, Frederick who, too, needs to be “rescued.” The song comes after Desiree asks him to leave his wife for her and he says “no.” Boom: cue the cello.

And now, the matter of Elaine Stritch. I love Elaine Stritch. I own “Elaine Stritch: Live At Liberty” on both CD and DVD. If you’ve never heard it or seen it, you’re missing out: she’s a living legend. But, sadly, she’s too old to be doing this part. She’s already become somewhat infamous (at least in the All That Chat community) for going up on her lines. And, indeed, at today’s performance, towards the end of Act One, she struggled. She forgot a word. She faked her way around it, but it was painful. The rest of the show was spent wondering if she was saying the lines as written, or if she was skating her way around them. That’s an injustice to the work and as much as I loved seeing her play an actual part on stage (rather than just seeing her play herself), I think she subtracts from the show more than she adds to it.

All in all, unless you’re a big Sondheim fan or a Bernadette Peters worshipper, you can skip this production. Back to the dust metaphor: it’s like a pile of dust with a few gems hidden inside. I look forward to a production that’s musky where this one’s dusty. But if Catherine Zeta Jones’s Tony performance was any indication, I should be grateful that this version wasn’t another “-y” word: hammy.

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Categories: Theater