Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Sondheim Mini-Festival in Atlanta

Just this past weekend, it was possible to see three Sondheim musicals in the Atlanta area.  Atlanta Lyric Theatre produced GYPSY, his 1959 collaboration with composer Jule Styne and book writer Arthur Laurents.   Georgia State University's music department presented their summer opera workshop production of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (1973), with Sondheim's music and lyrics and with book by Hugh Wheeler.  A suburban theatre group called Next Theatre presented ASSASSINS (1990), book by John Weidman.  I haven't seen GYPSY yet, but I saw the other two shows, and I have a couple of reviews.

Night Music:  Better Heard, Not Seen
First, NIGHT MUSIC worked so long as the director trusted the material.  The young performers' voices were strong and supple, blending well on the ensemble numbers.   (See my review of the Broadway revival.)

The standout performer on the night that I saw it was John Tibbetts. In the role of Carl-Magnus, an outsized and cartoonish character, Tibbetts had the outsized voice, but also a presence that made us believe that he believed every outrageously chauvinistic and egocentric thing he voiced.

Members of UGA's opera workshop production of Night Music:
John Tibbetts (Carl-Magnus), Erin McDaniel (Desiree) and Ryan Glover (Henrik)
photo: from facebook
To make the bare recital stage into the world of the story, director Copeland Woodruff started with a great idea.  The stage was dressed to be a backstage dressing room, where we watched the young actors at make-up tables, adding age to their faces and hair.  Scenery was derived from dressing-tables, trunks, folding screen, cloth.  

But then the director strained for laughs that killed the atmosphere that the show's creators tried to create -- "whipped cream with knives" original director Harold Prince called it, with music that aimed to be "perfume."   The Liebeslieder quintet, fine young singers, were made to shuffle and squint as though enacting a singalong at some nursing home.  The idea got some laughs at the start, but became a distraction when the quintet moved scenery at a shuffle's pace.    The high-comedy banter of the dinner party scene was marred by low-comedy mugging, the characters squeezed onto a small picnic blanket like clowns in a tiny car.   At the climax, Henrik's smashing of his wine-glass was turned into a slow-mo special effect with strobe lights. 

Evidently believing that songs need motion to be interesting, the director cued entrances for other characters during solos and duets.  For example, when characters Fredrik and Carl-Magnus confronted each about their lover Desiree, she entered upstage and slunk downstage center between the two men and lay at their feet while they toyed with her body -- detracting from the song, and also detracting from her character.  

The last words of the script are Madame Armfeldt's.  For all her experience with love as "a pleasurable means / to a measurable end," Madame Armfeldt has learned during the course of this evening's events what she has missed in life.  This night, she has seen her daughter fight to recover the one true love of her life, and to begin a new family.  Telling her granddaughter that it's now time for the summer night to "smile" for "the old, who know too much,"  she lets go of life, and Sondheim's lovely "Night Waltz" soars.   It's a delicate, bittersweet moment.

In this production, she collapses dramatically, is unceremoniously shrouded with the picnic blanket, and left in a heap while the actors tip toe away, dabbing at their eyes with handkerchiefs.  So much for delicate and bittersweet!

The voices were glorious, the dialogue well-delivered, the astonishing "perfume" of Sondheim's accompaniment all realized by a single overworked pianist (Christy Lee).  I just wish I'd closed my eyes.

Assassins: On Target
Also operating on a low budget, with a low ceiling on a wide shallow stage, director Rob Roy Hardie used nothing more than bar stools and barrels in the foreground, a seedy carnival shooting gallery upstage.  It was flanked by projection screens where photos of the assassins and their victims appeared at appropriate moments.

This show may be fool-proof.  I've seen it four times, including the Tony-Winning Broadway production in 2004.  Some actors sang better than others, some stages were more impressive, some sound systems were better balanced, but the effect has been the same:  We're drawn into the world of the assassins.  They mingle at the carnival, at the bar, in the park, always cantankerous, always endearingly loopy.  We learn their stories, one by one.  By the time they sing "Another National Anthem," we're on their side, and the fresh-faced "Balladeer" sounds pretty foolish when he tells these angry losers to be patient and "you can make the lies come true."  Even now, the fourth time I've seen it, I felt a pang when suddenly we're in Dallas with Lee Harvey Oswald, and the whole cohort tempt him to pull the trigger.  "Without you, we're just footnotes -- vainglorious actor, disgruntled office-seeker -- but with you, we're a force of history!"  The woman in front of me began to cry as soon as she realized where we were.

Sondheim and playwright Weidman added a number for the 1992 London production, and for me it's the linchpin of the piece.  After Oswald pulls the trigger, and we see a montage of video images from that event, the ensemble enters to sing in roles of ordinary men and women remembering the moment they heard the news, "The President's been shot!"   Their characters span 100 years of history, social groups and geography, but the clutching sense that "Something Just Broke" hits all of them -- and us, too.  The agony expressed so directly in this song restores us to balance.  When those assassins reprise their toe-tapping number "Everybody's Got the Right," they're goofy as ever, but not endearing any more.

While the director interrupted a couple of climactic moments with odd silent gun play between characters that I didn't get, this production was no less effective than others.   Danielle Girardeau stood out as "Squeaky Fromme," a foul-mouthed flower child, Paul Gourdeau commanded our attention in his two long tirades as Samuel Byck, and Zip Rampy managed to play Charles Guiteau as if all his cheerful bravado were just a blink away from abject despair.  The small band overpowered the singers, but not after the first couple of numbers. 

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