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Posts Tagged ‘A Little Night Music’

What a season!  A superlative blend of four promising new musicals, three dynamite plays (and another really enjoyable one), and a play revival that reinvented what that play was about and another that had only excellent notices.  When it comes time to award this season, there simply aren’t enough trophies to go around.

Just a glorious season for Off-Broadway.

Oh, right, the Tony Awards are only for Broadway shows.  Yeah, that season was a letdown as a whole.  A few inspired performances and pieces, but as a composite, the NY Times’s two critics called it a B- season.  To me, its more along the lines of C+.  Barely-there books in the Musical category, Plays that sound better on paper than on stage, and revivals of a slate of classics that were generall more about competence than brilliance.

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I’d ballot in the morning.
I’d ballot in the evening.
All over this la-a-and.

Its Tony time again.  Nominations arrive on May 4 in the wee morning hours.  I was torn between writing this post on who I’d vote for this year, if I did indeed have a vote, or to write who I think will actually get nominated.  And, given that I am full of opinion, I was leaning towards just laying out my imaginary ballot.  But, alas, I’ve chosen to withhold my preferences until the esteemed official voting bloc does its thing.  Then I can complain loudly and proudly.

Looking over this year’s field, a trend I’ve noticed over the last few years has solidified into practice.  Two seasons ago, A Catered Affair reached Broadway.  It was an interpolation of an old Bette Davis-Ernest Borgnine-Debbie Reynolds film, spun by Harvey Fierstein and featuring strong performances from Faith Prince and Tom Wopat.  However, despite the obvious beauty of the show, it was clear watching it that it wasn’t quite baked.  It was rushed through development to get to Broadway.  It had its fans, but ultimately was overshadowed by long-developed shows In The Heights and Passing Strange, which both had extended Off-Broadway runs before facing off for Best Musical at the Tonys, along with also-well-developed Xanadu.  In The Heights took home the prize, and is the only new musical from that season still running.

Last year, the Best Play and Best Musical winners were both imports from Britain, God of Carnage and Billy Elliot, respectively.  In fact, both were well-loved shows across the pond before making their way here.  The development made them successful in both cities, and each easily dominated their category.  Carnage blew away very strong competition, challenge from Neil Labute’s Reasons To Be Pretty, Moises Kaufman’s 33 Variations, and Horton Foote’s Dividing The Estate.  Billy, however, faced no real challenge from its only major competition in the Off-Broadway transfer of Next To Normal.

This year, once again, the shows in contention for Best Musical are generally an imperfect bunch.  Addams Family is a morass of cut & paste.  All About Me wasn’t worth knowing.  American Idiot is a staged version of a punk album that doesn’t bother to name its female characters.  Burn the Floor was all smoke.  Come Fly Away does land enough.  Everyday Rapture should be the extinguished Special Event category, since it’s really a one-woman show.  Fela! doesn’t tell enough of Kuti’s story.  Memphis’s book completely falls apart in the second act.  Million Dollar Quartet is a stunt, aiming only at tourists’ wallets.  Each one could use some more development, but it’s no surprise the best two of the bunch (in my opinion) had Off-Broadway runs.  And the two best revivals are both British imports.  Once again, fully developed productions are few and far between.

Producers seem to be rushing shows to the big stage, rather than fully investing in a show’s development.  I read that Yank!, which I enjoyed, is coming up next season.  But, frankly, it’s not ready.  The second act needs work, and some of the songs need to be replaced.  Its simply too soon, despite a stellar performance from Bobby Steggert, for the show to make it to Broadway.

Bake it properly, and the show will rise well.  Take it out too soon, and it will fall.  Such has been the Broadway scene for the last few years.  Its economics, certainly, impacting the length of time an investor will wager on results, but the last few years have shown diminishing returns for those who don’t properly develop their shows.  And we all suffer when that happens.

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Rather than attempt a set of superlatives, I decided to just highlight things that stood out from my theatre going activities in 2009.  Having seen nearly forty pieces throughout the year, here’s what stuck with me.

Am I smelling bacon?
Yes, they made bacon onstage during the recent revival of Our Town.  The hokeyness abated thanks to a marvelous production at the Barrow Street Theatre, imported from Chicago.  David Cromer directs an unusual, modern staging that brings forth the power of the work without getting bogged down in the logistics of a turn-of-the-19th-century show.  This run was supposed to have closed in July, and its still running in January.  Not a surprise at all.

I am, in fact, Ruined
Lynn Nottage’s powerhouse play, also imported from Chicago, was so utterly moving, I think I went a few minutes without breathing.  The tension, the complexity, and the drive of a group of women in the Congo to survive during a never-ending civil war is incredible.  This year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, its fantastic to see a play about something be entertaining.

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It’s rare when I’m very surprised by my theatre experiences.  I try to keep my expectations balanced, and don’t ever think too highly or lowly of anything until I’ve seen it.  With a revival whose music I’m fond of, it can be difficult not to compare each moment to something I’ve committed to memory.  And comparisons can be sticky.

That being said, when I saw the revival of Stephen Sondheim’s classic waltz-time musical comedy A Little Night Music, I was, in fact, quite surprised.  The revival, directed by British “Spare Production” Trevor Nunn, is not only in fine shape, the musical reminds you why theatre can be such a thrilling experience apart from any other medium.

Watching actors emote so clearly, and sing with a reflection not necessarily in the words, brings a real gravitas to your viewing experience – regardless of whether the piece is funny, sad, dark, light, witty, inane, devastating or anything else along the emotional spectrum.  A Little Night Music is quite funny, and it beautifully balanced its wit with an emotional punch about how we move through our love lives.  I’ve read a more than a few references to this piece as a masterpiece, and that word is absolutely accurate.

As much as I’ve listened to the original cast’s soundtrack over the years (especially recently), I knew the material quite well.  As for that surprise feeling I mentioned, I wasn’t expecting the humor of the script – and the bon mots tossed out, particularly by Lansbury, are hilarious.  Coupled with a gorgeous score (in 3/4 waltz time), the piece of theatre really is outstanding.

Cast with stars Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury, the revival transfers from the West End with lead Alexander Hanson in tow.  The production is, as advertised, quite spare.  The opulent Mansion referred to is nowhere to be seen, but frankly, only one scene needed more production work.  While cast with these names, you would think the show is really a star vehicle, when its much more of an ensemble piece – more Into The Woods than Sunday In The Park With George, if you will.

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