A Little Night Liaison with Sondheim

It is safe to say that 2009-2010 has been the season for Stephen Sondheim on Broadway.  His newest production, Sondheim on Sondheim served to be a musical walk down memory lane.  West Side Story was a successful revival that brought new and experienced theatergoers to the Great White Way.  When the revival of A Little Night Music opened in December 2009, the likelihood of its success was undebatable – Catherine Zeta-Jones starring as Desiree Armfeldt, Angela Lansbury as Madame Armfeldt and the music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, total no-brainer.   Catherine Zeta-Jones, who revealed her singing and dancing chops in the film adaptation of Chicago, won Best Actress in a Musical at this year’s Tony awards.  The production was also nominated for Best Revival of a Musical, Best Sound Design and Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Angela Lansbury.  The show took a brief hiatus in June after Catherine Zeta-Jones’ and Angela Lansbury’s contracts ended.  On July 13 the production resumed with Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch portraying Desiree and Madame Armfeldt. With new cast members in place, A Little Night Music turned a page in this revival’s story without losing any of its potency. 

Set in Sweden at the turn of the 20th century, A Little Night Music brings the elegance and sexual repression of the Victorian era to life with the same cultivation as a waltz.  With the sparse furniture and rotating sets, director Trevor Nunn shines a spotlight on the undercurrent of love rather than the romanticism that accompanies this emotion.  The loss of love…longing…the sport of love…wasted times are all themes that reveal themselves like lit streetlamps at dusk.   The sets seamlessly transition from one act to the next and offer a balance as “the young” and “the fools” stumble over self created roadblocks on their trek to true love.

 The cast carries the melancholy tone that accompanies the story just as beautifully as they deliver the dialogue and musical numbers.  Alexander Hanson is enjoyable as Fredrik Egerman, the middle-aged lawyer that had a love affair with Desiree and is now in a sexless marriage with Anne.  So clever, he appears to know everything but really knows nothing.  Ramona Mallory is delightful as Anne Egerman; the 18-year-old virgin married to Fredrik.  She holds her chastity with the same constriction as she holds her secret love for Henrik, Fredrik’s son.  As Henrik, Hunter Ryan Herdlicka gives a convincing performance of a young man tortured by desire and morality. The breakout performance is given by Erin Davie.  As the Countess Charlotte Malcolm she is jocular and tragic, and comes close to stealing the spotlight from Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch.  But the combination of Peters and Stritch is hard to eclipse, both are absolutely radiant and can bring all the luminosity of the moon on stage.

The real question I had as I waited for the curtain to rise at the Walter Kerr Theatre was if the addition of Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch would go over well with Generation X and Y.  Both accomplished actresses are Broadway veterans, but box-office superstar Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury (who introduced herself to these age groups while playing Jessica Fletcher in the long-running CBS series Murder She Wrote) are far more recognizable faces.  It was Sondheim that suggested Bernadette Peters take over the role of Desiree; his foresight would pay off tremendously for this revival.  

 

The role of Desiree Armfeldt was tailor made for Bernadette Peters.  She is a Broadway baby literally that can translate the bohemian life Desiree has lead as famous stage actress extremely well.   Her presence on stage can only be compared to a breath of fresh H2O.  She brings an effervescent charm to Desiree without losing any of the maturity and complexity of the character.  Her performance is like sipping a glass of Veuve Clicquot’s La Grande Dame champagne – delectable from beginning to end.  She is beyond familiar with Sondheim’s work starring in productions of Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods and Gypsy.  His music and lyrics and her voice fit like the famous Versace dress Jennifer Lopez wore to the Grammy’s – exposing all the best emotions and features of the other.  This pairing comes to a crescendo when Bernadette sings “Send in the Clowns.”   The emotion Bernadette delivers exposes the lament in this song so exquisitely that by the last bar my eyes were swelling with tears. 

Elaine Stritch is uproarious as Madame Armfeldt; her comedic timing is as infinite as her talent.  During the performance Elaine had to have a few lines read to her; her savvy as a comedic actress placed a lovely veil over her forgetfulness.  In fact, it added another layer to Madame Armfeldt, a sharp-tongued woman that seems to be stuck in the past.  Watching Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch on stage together was like unearthing rare gems.  My question had been answered; no member of the audience, regardless of their age, could feel cheated if they missed the performances of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury.  Bernadette Peters, Elaine Stritch and the rest of the cast are worth the price of admission and then some, but despite the celebrities on stage, the eternal star of A Little Night Music is the music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim.  Like the moon, his compositions smile upon us all; it is an essential component in making this revival and any future productions a triumph.

Photos:  Joan Marcus for Broadway.com

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2010 Tony Awards

Segregation and rock ‘n’ roll triumphed over corrupt government regimes and Afrobeat, men wearing wigs toppled Sondheim, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis swung and hit a homerun past the fences and Red is the new color of the Great White Way.  If you are confused about what I was just referring to, then you missed the live broadcast of the 2010 Tony Awards on CBS.

Photo: Kevin Mazur/WireImage.com

The stars of Broadway and Hollywood filled Radio City Music Hall while fans in Manhattan braved a downpour to watch a live simulcast of the event in Times Square.  Sean Hayes did not disappoint, the Promises, Promises star and Tony nominee was just as enjoyable as the host of the Tony’s as he is on stage at the Broadway Theatre.  The show opened with Sean Hayes tickling the ivories singing “Blue Suede Shoes” with Levi Kreis (Tony Award winner for Best Performance by a Featured Actor) and the cast of Million Dollar Quartet; he also accompanied fellow cast mate Kristen Chenoweth as she sang “I Say a Little Prayer.”  The casts of Come Fly With Me, Fela!, La Cage Aux Folles and Everyday Rapture provided audiences at Radio City and at home with a small glimpse of why they were nominated and the opening number closed with the Green Day and the cast of American Idiot having stars like Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas and Will and Jada Smith clapping to their punk rock masterpiece. 

 

Photo: J. Countess/WireImage.com

Although Fela! and La Cage Aux Folles accumulated 11 nominations, each only walked away with three awards.  Bill T. Jones won for Best Choreography for Fela! and the musical centering on the Afrobeat pioneer/activist also won Best Sound Design of a Musical and Best Costume Design of a Musical.   La Cage Aux Folles won Best Direction of a Musical, Best Revival of a Musical and Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical for Douglas Hodge.  Catherine Zeta-Jones won Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical for A Little Night Music and Katie Finneran won Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical for her portrayal of the hysterical Marge MacDougall in Promises, PromisesAmerican Idiot won for Best Scenic Design of a Musical and Best Lighting Design of a Musical, but it was Memphis that took home the Tony for Best Musical as well as Best Book of a Musical, Best Direction of a Musical and Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre.

 

Photo: J. Countess/WireImage.com

The Tony Awards were seeing Red literally; the play won the most awards of the evening including Best Play, Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Play for Eddie Redmayne, Best Direction of a Play, Best Scenic Design of a Play, Best Lighting Design of a Play and Best Sound Design of a Play.  The revival of August Wilson’s Fences won the Tony for Best Revival of a Play, Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play for Denzel Washington and Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Play for Viola Davis.  The beauty and talent of Scarlett Johansson lent itself well to the stage and garnered her Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Play Tony for her performance in A View from the Bridge

 

Photo: J. Countess/WireImage.com

The main feature of any award show is the performances and the Tony Awards provide the best of any award show.  Audiences were wowed by performances casts of Memphis, Million Dollar Quartet, American Idiot and Fela!  Catherine Zeta-Jones delivered a powerful performance of the Sondheim standard “Send in the Clowns” and brought her husband, Michael Douglas, to tears.  This year marked the 64th anniversary of the Tony Awards and with it being a year away from the age of retirement I can confidently say that I see no departure any time soon.  Exciting and provocative shows like Next Fall, American Idiot and Fela! are breathing new life into Broadway and changing the ideas of what a production can do, and revivals like Fences, La Cage Aux Folles and A View from the Bridge show why a classic stage production has staying power.  Although Manhattan is battling through one of the worst global economic periods on record, Broadway proves why humans will always crave drama and a little night (or matinee) music. 

Top Photo:  Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage.com

Broadway Takes Time to Give

On May 17 some of Broadway’s power players gathered at the Four Seasons Hotel to lend their support and signatures to the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS’ “Time to Give” Auction.  The “Time to Give” auction is a collaboration between Audemars Piguet Swiss watches and the Tony Awards. Each watch will be a one-of-a-kind creation featuring the celebrity’s signature recreated on the back or side.

Kelsey Grammer and Jay-Z

 

Legends of the Great White Way attended the invitation-only auction, conducted by Christie’s Lydia Fenet.  Liev Schreiber’s signature watch sold for $13,000.  Screen and stage veteran Catherine Zeta Jones’ signed timepiece brought in $80,000 and Nathan Lane’s autographed watch sold for $26,000.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Francois-Henry Bennahmias and Vanessa Williams

Meryl Streep is not only a big draw at the box office; she is big draw on the auction block as well.  Her watch sold for $100,000.  Francois-Henry Bennahmias, President and CEO of Audemars Piguet North America, provided a second autographed Meryl Streep Millenary Astrologia watch to a guest willing to match the $100,000 bid.  Kelsey Grammer’s autographed Jules Audemars Chronograph watch sold for $45,000.   Vanessa Williams sang an a cappella rendition of “Losing My Mind,” which she sings in Sondheim on Sondheim, live after someone paid $50,000 for her watch.  Jay-Z brought in the highest price of the evening for his autographed Royal Oak Offshore Las Vegas Strip timepiece.  His signature watch and signed poster from Fela! sold for $220,000. 

Other celebrities that lent their signatures to Audemars Piguet watches were Antonio Banderas, Kristin Chenoweth, Alan Cumming, Edie Falco, Whoopi Goldberg, Sean Hayes, Neil Patrick Harris, David Hyde Pierce, Hugh Jackman, Jane Krakowski, Angela Lansbury, Cyndi Lauper, John Lithgow, Sienna Miller, Bebe Neuwirth, Cynthia Nixon, Chita Rivera and Anika Noni Rose.  Fifteen of the autographed Swiss timepieces are still available for bidding at www.charitybuzz.com/audemarspiguet.  The auction closes on May 24.

Photos: © Bill Davila/startraksphotos.com