I had no doubt I would be crazy about the new production of A Little Night Music playing at the Walter Kerr in New York. A bus from Hoboken should get me there in plenty of time, and there was no one in that audience who could possibly be a bigger fan of Bernadette Peters or Elaine Stritch. Many of my blog posts go into detail about buses being late, me having to walk farther than I expect, me being under stress to get where I'm going--I admit there were a few such glitches this time, but I shall spare you those details because I want to tell you about one of the best experiences I've ever had in a theater.I've never seen a production of this particular show before. I saw the original Ingmar Bergman film (Smiles of a Summer Night) which inspired it, and Woody Allen's Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, which surely was influenced by that film. I'll never forget the first time I heard its principal hit song, "Send in the Clowns," sung by Glynis Johns on my little black and white television. But I was saving this one until the right production came along.
Being a fan of Elaine Stritch, I loved her show At Liberty, which I saw on DVD; and her work in Company, of which I have the original cast album. I saw the documentary film of the making of that cast album, in which Stritch is clearly an artist determined to do her best work, and is a wonder when she pulls it off. In A Little Night Music she rises to a level of classiness we know she has, and delivers a comedy line or sings a poignant comedy song ("Liaisons") with, stealing a phrase Sondheim gives us in a later number, "her usual flair." In the audience, we are delighted to see that wheelchair (for the character, of course; Ms. Stritch is hale and hearty at 84) roll her onstage to sing or talk to us.
Bernadette Peters is a national treasure. I saw her in Sunday in the Park with George, and, like at least half of the world, have seen and been won over by her in dozens of movies and television appearances. Her stage presence, charm and knockout voice are always delicious and would enhance any show. This one has been waiting for her until the time was right, which is now.
I had heard some of the music, but was not completely prepared for the lyrics, the integration of song-to-show, and the wonderful Stephen Sondheim surprises of the comedy, romance, melody and dance of this piece. It was a delight to be seeing it all come together and work so elegantly from start to finish. Not only were Peters and Stritch poised and flawless, they were joined by a cast of perfectly matched foils and partners. The program informed me that Alexander Hanson has played not only this role (Frederik) but Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music and numerous other straight and musical plays. He was simply perfect in this show, and the mind can picture him easily in many others--and one hopes to see him in them all. Ramona Mallory was a beauteous and pitch-perfect Anne, but I wasn't entirely prepared for the breathtaking "The Miller's Son" as performed by the beautiful Leigh Ann Larkin in the last act. She made the most of the number, and how.
By this time we were all waiting for Peters to sing "Send in the Clowns" and the whole audience seemed to hold its breath as one from the opening notes and to exhale and roar with applause at its end. The song never stood alone for me as just a love song, but it fits superbly into its place here, with its theatrical and circus references, and befits its singer, who is facing the prospect of life not quite in her grasp as she moves in age and for once is unsure.
There is much in this play. Misguided love, reflections on life, life itself passing before us under the midsummer night's trees, a young man about to misspend his life, an old lady looking forward to her funeral with "the best champagne," and love, love, love--in almost all its forms. And the beautiful music and joie de vivre of Stephen Sondheim. I know why I never saw this show before. I was waiting for this particular production.