I went in with the best of all possible attitudes. I love A Little Night Music. I love how Sondheim writes deeply cynical lyrics that are somehow at the same time deeply romantic, how he creates characters who are simultaneously archetypes and individuals, how he takes a story of casual infidelity, marital unhappiness, and emotional isolation and turns it into a charming, funny, moving meditation on the follies of love and age. I love the music, which is as hellishly difficult to sing (I've tried) as it is easy to listen to. And I'm a pure fool for a cheerful and peripatetic actress who lives for touring, no matter how many mice she sees in the hall.
I've seen three productions: The original in 1973; the Civic Opera version (don't remember the date); and a college production at Boston College directed by an old friend of Ellen's (which was excellent, btw--the performances he got out of those kids were remarkable). I therefore have opinions about Anne, Frederick, Desiree, Charlotte, Carl-Magnus, and Madame Armfeldt--how they should be played and how they should be sung. Which is not, on the whole, how Trevor Nunn chose to direct the actors in this production. A director is entitled, of course, to bring out a comedy's dark and angsty subtext if he so chooses (look at what Sam Mendes did
To me, one of the greatest charms of Night Music is the tension between the music and the text, between the gay waltzes, the wryly clever lyrics, and the painful emotions the characters are feeling. When you come down too hard on the pain, then the songs seem mean instead of wry, and the characters are no longer lonely people doing the best they know how to get their emotional needs met in a repressive society, but sour and damaged neurotics without much sense of humor. Blessedly, Jayne Paterson (covering for Cathering Zeta-Jones, who was on vacation), sparkled with humor, as did Alexander Hansen as the best Frederick I've seen--including Jeremy Irons, who was a bit acid. Hansen has wry totally covered, and when his Frederick and Paterson's Desiree laugh together, you can see the sparks fly. And Aaron Lazar is a magnificent Carl-Magnus--ridiculously vain, stupid, and humorless, and yet the kind of superbly simple physical animal a woman as complex as Charlotte would believably fall for.
The rest of the cast was very good--except for being so broadly directed that they seemed more like cartoons than characters. Including, I'm sorry to say, Angela Lansbury as Madame Armfeldt. She seemed to be going for the cheap laugh rather than finding the genuine pathos at the center of the character of an aged courtesan who has given up love in favor of a "tiny Titian" and a chateau "extravagantly overstaffed." A consummate professional, of course, and fascinating to watch. But I liked her Madame Arcati better. So, I suspect, does she.
Of course, she could have been having an off night. The whole cast was considerably thrown (as was the audience) by some poor woman collapsing in the fourth row in the middle of Act I. Everything shut down while the houselights went up, 911 was called, and we all waited for the ambulance to show up. After about 20 minutes, the NYFD appeared, did their thing, and wheeled her out in a wheelchair, with an oxygen mask, the houselights dimmed, and the actors took up again where they had left off. But everybody was a little discombobulated.
Reading this over, I find I've been more negative than I felt when I walked out of the theatre. So, to be fair, I will say that this is undoubtedly a lovely production, in what theatre historians are probably going to call the New Austerity mode of the early 21st Century. I did rather wonder, in Act I, why on earth all these people going to the theatre and paying calls if they were still in mourning for some close relative, but the black and dove-grey gowns of Act I were lovely, and made the cream-colored confections of Act II seem lighter and more frivolous by comparison. And I hated the girl playing the young wife Anne, who made her seem more bipolar than young and innocent. But the music remains the music (even if sung what felt to me like a hair, or even two, slower than its ideal tempo) and Sondheim's finest (to my taste, at least). And Leigh Ann Larkin as Petra totally nailed "The Miller's Son," which made me cry. Ellen's brother and wife enjoyed the show, and we talked about it all the way home in the subway. So I'd have to say the evening was a success.
Tonight, Ellen is out with friends at yet another theatrical event--an Off-Broadway show a friend is in. Me, I'm curled up in bed with my computer and a profound case of the Garbos ("I vant to be alone"). Perhaps that accounts for the relative crabbiness of my account?