'A Little Night Music,' a bittersweet tale of romantic longing and furtive liaisons unfolding over a single midsummer's evening in the Swedish countryside, remains among composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim's most admired and best known works, as well as one of his most commercially successful. The musical, inspired by Ingmar Bergman's classic film 'Smiles of A Summer Night' and featuring a book by Hugh Wheeler, logged in 601 performances during its first Broadway run in 1973.
Back then, the New York Times theater critic called the lavish Harold Prince-directed production 'heady, civilized,
sophisticated and enchanting.' The sumptuous score even yielded an enduring adult pop hit in the rueful 'Send in the Clowns,' brought to Top 40 and adult contemporary radio via Judy Collins' elegant, contemplative interpretation on Elektra Records.
New York magazine has called this new, more intimate, chamber-style production, developed at London's Menier Chocolate Factory by acclaimed director Trevor Nunn, 'stunning..., devastatingly good.' Nun himself describes his daringly pared-down approach as 'a good deal more Chekhovian in its intentions.' Oscar-winning actress Catherine Zeta-Jones
(Chicago) makes her long-awaited Broadway debut in the lead role of Desiree, originated in '73 by Glynis
Johns. The Hollywood Reporter called Jones' performance 'captivating' and her rendition of 'Send In the Clowns' a
'revelation... she handles the poignant and comic aspects of her character with equal aplomb.' USA Today concurred: 'Zeta-Jones brings great warmth and vitality to the role and makes it easier to see why Desiree's old lover, Fredrik the
male lead, played with suave brio by Alexander Hanson would vie with a blustering dragoon for her affections.' The New York Times hailed Jones' show-stopping co-star Angela Lansbury, without a doubt the hardest working octogenarian on Broadway, as 'indomitable and invaluable,' calling her performance as a wise and omniscient former courtesan 'quite delicious.'
The Times also praised the intricacy and delicacy of Mr. Sondheim's score, 'which sets a deep-blue wistfulness to
three-quarter time.' Nunn's austere, reconceived staging, says the Hollywood Reporter, 'does a wonderful job of accentuating the emotional complexities and endlessly witty dialogue of Hugh Wheeler's book.' London's Daily Telegraph
gave this Broadway transfer an equally enthusiastic assessment: 'Far from another star vehicle, this thoroughly British affair is good, old-fashioned entertainment at its sparkling best.' Perhaps most importantly, Sondheim himself, who is also represented on Broadway this season with a bilingual staging of 'West Side Story,' reacted positively in a recent New York Times interview: 'You get to concentrate on the piece of work,' he says of the current staging, which features eight
musicians and a five-voice chorus. 'I'm just pleased that somebody wants to do it, and that it gets a chance to be seen again... It's a greater pleasure when these pieces get another outing.'
As theatergoers - and listeners to this newly recorded cast album - will surely attest: the pleasure is decidedly ours. This new Broadway production is scheduled to run at least through June 2010.
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SOME THRILLS, SOME SPILLS
Mamet Fan | Manhattan | 04/07/2010
(3 out of 5 stars)
"The songs are taken at a pace where you are able to hear every word--a thrill. Some of the arrangements are nice, and almost make up for the lack of size of the "orchestra." On other tunes, in particular the awful Glamorous Life, which sounds like a bad polka, the lack of instruments and the quality of the arrangements (you can't call them orchestrations; it's a busker's band)really hurt. Also, the Miller's Son, apart from feeling under-rehearsed (as do a couple of other numbers), makes you wonder why you should listen to this version, when you can hear the balls-out, fully orchestrated one in the original, not to mention A Weekend in the Country (and if you've never heard that French horn or whatever it is, in the original, I supposed its absence doesn't matter, and yet...) On the whole, though, I really missed the lushness of the original, and Tunick's orchestrations (after you listen to the original a few hundred times for the music and lyrics and the fullness of character in the voices, listen a few hundred more to Tunick's orchestrations--he's a lifelong hero of mine (while we're on the subject, probably my favorite Tunick is his work on Another Hundred People--that rushing force of energy that just keeps building; I still can't listen without my inhalor.
I really liked the Frederick. He lacks the sense of authority, robustness, and occasional menace (for instance, cf Cariou's "What was that?" in You Must Meet My Wife; this guy seems flustered, while Cariou seems to be implying a warning--anyway, that's what I hear), but he's pretty good, anyway. Henrik, though, seems weak-voiced and insufficiently tormented, and I miss the high notes in Later (though see the French horn above). I was really waiting to hear Angela Lansbury do Liasons--the only reason I bought it. It was a fine performance, but...Lansbury's is a very fine acting job, while there was no Gingold, only Madame A.
It's no shame to be no Glynis Johns--no one could ever match her performance, it isn't possible. Zeta-Jones does a nice job, but why spend your valuable time on earth listening to her modestly okay song-stylings when you can listen, over and over again, to a real person actually living in real time, albeit over and over again?
The ability to hear every single word, some of the arrangements, the guy playing Frederick, Angela Lansbury--all good reasons to listen, at least now and then.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Sondheim!
Good Stuff | 04/07/2010
(5 out of 5 stars)
"What a lovely gift for Stephen Sondheim on the coming occurrence of his 80th birthday. I live far from New York, so I was very happy to learn this beautiful show was to be recorded.
Perhaps most amazing is the fact this show seems to work no matter the configuration. Here the orchestra has been reduced to what I would call a chamber orchestra, and it sounds wonderful. Years ago I saw New York City Opera's production with Sally Anne Howes and Regina Resnik - completely different, of course - but just as wonderful. I quickly accustomed myself the the lightness of this interpretation, which, I think, helps focus the attention on the characters.
I was concerned that Catherine Zeta-Jones would give us one of those "Hollywood-Stars-Gone-A-Slumming" performances. But no, she'll have none of that. Judging only from the recording, of course, I think she is absolute magic here. She actually seems to understand the songs. We're often reminded that Sondheim did not write this role for a trained singer, but for a fine actress. How refreshing that in Zetta-Jones we have a fine actress whose singing voice is quite lovely. This, I think, is a huge stretch for her, and she is to be congratulated.
Everyone else in the cast does just fine, with a special nod to Alexander Hanson. And, of course, Angela Lansbury. She doesn't erase the memory of the magnificent Hermione Gingold. No one could do that. However, she shows us that there is another way. The years have made her a very wise artist. She knows exactly what she is capable of and, in a most intelligent, dramatic and musical way, gives us everything she's got. Bless her.
I just heard the cast recording of Andrew Lloyd Webber's new "Love Never Dies". Unlike some others, I never compare Mr. Webber and Mr. Sondheim. I think they both do what they do quite well. That said, I can't help but comment that, with all it's lush orchestration, myriad characters and Puccinian ripeness, Mr. Webber seems unable to accomplish in 2 1/2 hours what Mr. Sondheim accomplishes here in five minutes: he makes me believe."