Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Night Music and South Pacific: Revelatory Revivals

(Reflections on the revivals of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, directed by Trevor Nunn, currently playing at the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York, and of SOUTH PACIFIC, directed by Bartlet Sher, playing at the Lincoln Center's Vivien Beaumont Theatre.)

Angela Lansbury, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Keaton Whittaker in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. Joan Marcus, photo

At fifteen, I turned down a chance to see A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC when it was on Broadway the first time. I've regretted it ever since. Around the same age, seeing SOUTH PACIFIC at a dinner theatre, I judged it harshly for alternating cute numbers with tediously earnest ones. This past weekend I saw the first Broadway revivals of both shows, and I'm ready to right some old wrongs.

Stephen Sondheim's score for NIGHT MUSIC intricately weaves horizontal elements of melody and story with vertical elements of rhyme and character in ways that inspire awe, not to mention laughter and satisfaction. Most astonishing is the intersection of three distinct musical numbers, "Now," "Soon," and "Later" early in the show.

Sondheim's work fits in neatly to the work of his original collaborators Harold Prince and Hugh Wheeler. Together, they chose the waltz itself as a metaphor for the show, and everything happens in threes, not just the meters of the songs. Besides that suite of three numbers to introduce the Egerman family, there is the opening waltz that gives us a visual preview of the story, as couples flirt with third parties and change partners. Two characters sing of a third (Fredrika and Mme. Armfeldt comment on the "Glamorous LIfe" of Desiree, who duets with Fredrik about his wife; Carl-Magnus sings of his mistress Desiree and his wife Charlotte; Charlotte sings to Anne about Carl-Magnus; Fredrik and Carl-Magnus sing of Desiree). Soloists sing of three lovers ("Liaisons" and "The Miller's Son"). The summer night smiles three times, for three sets of characters - the young, the fools, and the old.

The standout song, "Send in the Clowns," is the exception, being the only song in NIGHT MUSIC for one character to address another directly: "Just when I'd stopped / Opening doors / Finally knowing the one that I wanted / Was yours...."

How director Trevor Nunn handled that number shows how he achieves fine effects through elegant simplicity. He and his designer David Farley presented all the action within a demi-lune of cream - colored panels, mostly covered with smokey mirrors. Panels could open outward to suggest walls, or they could slide to reveal countryside. Only once, a panel opened to reveal an ante room beyond the one that we could see, and it's for the climactic scene when Fredrik knocks at the door to Desiree's bedroom, intending to tell her that he will leave her. Before the final verse, he rises, turns his back on Desiree, and exits, closing that door behind him.

Nunn also re-imagined the opening sequence of numbers, downplaying the comic operetta elements to highlight the mood of Sondheim's haunting "Night Waltz." Henrik in dark shadow sustains the first pitch on cello at stage center, and the voices of the quintet float in from offstage before we see the singers. As other characters enter in shadow, the Quintet sings, "Remember." It merges into the aforementioned "Night Waltz," before the lights come up full for the first time on the words "Bring up the curtain, la - la - la," for a rousing finish.

In the compressed space of this setting, the vocal Quintet doubles as scenery. They are the acting company with suitcases and trunks, riding with Desiree on trains and arriving at stages in "The Glamorous Life." They are servants standing by in Madame Armfeldt's chateau. At the first word of the song "Remember," the baritone and the mezzo stand behind Fredrik and Desiree, identifying their reminiscences with Fredrik's and Desiree's. In fact, the quintet is dressed and groomed to resemble the lead characters whom they shadow at various times.

Musically, the cast possesses fine voices that seem to handle all the demands of their parts effortlessly, and listening to them is pure pleasure. A salon ensemble of eight covers all the layers of the score so well that I did not miss having a full orchestra.

Dramatically, the actors don't blend so well as their voices do. Leigh Ann Larkin as "Petra" literally sounded some jarring notes in "The Miller's Son," when she purposefully distorted ends of phrases in some kind of exaggerrated mockery of the higher classes. Ramona Mallory would seem to have been born to play "Anne," being the daughter of the original cast's "Anne" and "Henrik," but she, too, seemed to exaggerrate the extremes of her character without giving us the center.

She could take lessons from Aaron Lazar, who plays another character who bounces comically between extremes. But Count Carl - Magnus doesn't seem cartoonish, as Lazar always made clear the character's thoughts and feelings, even in the transition between, "I'll kill him! / Why should I bother? / The woman's mine!"

Angela Lansbury earns the star on her dressing room door in the role of Madame Armfeldt. She gets double the laughs on some Wildesque epigrams by suggesting punchlines before she even completes the sentences. Pause for laugh; complete the joke; pause for bigger laugh. But she seemed truly affectionate for her granddaughter "Fredrika," played believably by young Keaton Whittaker, and sincerely tender reminiscing about the duke "who was prematurely deaf, but a dear." In an interview, Lansbury comments that Mme. Armfeldt is shaken when she sees her daughter in love, an experience that the elder woman never has had. Over the course of the drama, Lansbury conveys increasing frailty, confusion, and awareness of her profound loneliness.

On the spectrum between those actors whose characters seem real, and those who seem to be auditioning for their parts, the leads Catherine Zeta - Jones as "Desiree" and Alexander Hanson as "Fredrik" are close to the real end, best when they're joking with each other. Best of all is the moment that provokes "Send in the Clowns," when, mid-smile, Desiree realizes that Fredrik is rejecting her.

At the very end of the show, a reprise of the Night Waltz, each character is with his or her true romantic partner -- and Nunn adds little Fredrika to Fredrik and Desiree to complete a family. It's fitting, it's warm, and isn't it rich!


Photo: Sara Krulwich, NY Times

In Bartlet Sher's production of Rodgers' and Hammerstein's SOUTH PACIFIC, songs I've known and even sung since adolescence suddenly connected to each other in that same vertical - and - horizontal way that I've admired in NIGHT MUSIC. If the waltz is a central metaphor for ALNM, the isolation of "islands" is the metaphor for all of SOUTH PACIFIC.

The set is a vast sandy beach rising to a dune upstage. Beyond that is the image of blue water, blue sky, and, sometimes visible through a mist, the island of Bali Hai. The characters Nelly and Emile sing of each other in parallel verses, isolated. The signature songs "Some Enchanted Evening" and "Bali Hai" are about crossing a distance, water or "a crowded room" to connect with a special someone, a special island. Even the children's ditty "Dites - Moi" echoes the same theme. Nelly sings of her "faith in romance" despite what everyone else says, and Cable sings "My Girl Back Home" about his alienation from his old life. Far from being cute, the song "Happy Talk" is painful to watch, as Bloody Mary is desperate for Sgt. Cable to commit himself to her trusting daughter Liat. He expresses his anger at the social forces that would make misery out of her life with him in America -- and anger at himself for not bucking those forces -- in the song "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught." It links musically and thematically to the next song, Emile's "This Nearly Was Mine." Both songs are in three-quarter time, each sung in turn by a man who has missed an opportunity to connect to "his special island." By the end of the two songs, they are two guys with nothing left to lose, and they are motivated to risk their lives on their mission to the island.

Like all the classic musicals, this one has its older couple (Nellie and Emile), its young couple (Liat and Cable), and its comic Luther Billis. All their stories converge on a distant island where the US armed forces can spy on Japanese movements to turn the failing war effort around.

Famously, there's also the theme of artificial barriers to connecting. That's not only the divide between "white" and "colored" on which the stories hinge, but also the class tension between the enlisted men and the officers. In the larger context, the second act's show - within - a - show, featuring the 20s pastiche number "Honey Bun," becomes not a mere comic relief, but an emotional moment when such barriers drop.

While I enjoyed the entire show, it was the very first scene that captivated me. The setting was simple, an inner and outer wall of slatted blinds between the viewer and the shore, and some furniture. For a stretch of fifteen minutes or more, the setting doesn't change, but the story moves forward and moves deep, too. The children's "Dites-Moi" leads to the entrance of Nellie and Emile. Actress Kelli O'Hara, whom I saw in this same theatre in THE LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA, shows Nellie's enthusiasm, humility, sensuality, reticence all at the same time, different emotions shimmering like an opal in her face, her eyes, her hands, and her voice. As "Emile," Paulo Szot was more steady, and clearly focused on winning Nellie. "Cockeyed Optimist" blends into "Twin Soliloquies" which lead naturally to "Some Enchanted Evening." I'd have been happy enough if the show had ended right there.

Bonus photo: The marquee of the Walter Kerr Theatre as the "Blizzard of 2009" began. Photo by my friend Suzanne Swann.


Carol Fuller said...

I have long been in love with "Send in the Clowns" but, not from hearing it sung from the 1973 Broadway show, but from Judy Collins. Played over and over on my old record player, in a small dorm room, where the dreams of a young girl shown ethereally like a ghost light left burning on stage.

W. Scott Smoot said...

An NPR music appreciation of "Send in the Clowns" :