In her second Broadway appearance in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, the fearlessly gifted Lee Ann Larkin takes the role of lusty servant girl, Petra, and totally makes it her own, just as she did in her Great White Way debut, GYPSY, with the character of June. That June-Petra one-two punch reminded me of Larkin’s co-star NIGHT MUSIC Angela Lansbury (since succeeded by Elaine Stritch), who also began her film career in eye-catching supporting roles, playing a Cockney maid in “Gaslight” at 18 and then the tragic Sibyl Vane in “Picture of Dorian Gray,” both of which garnered Oscar nominations
read my GAY CITY NEWS interview with her
As for the rest of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, the most hotly anticipated show of the summer, although it opened last December due to Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch replacing Catherine Zeta Jones and Angela Lansbury in the roles of Desiree and Madame Armfeldt, respectively. Its celestial tunefulness, witty lyrics and elegantly romantic period setting make it my personal favorite Stephen Sondheim show and I was especially looking forward to seeing Peters, who I felt was the perfect age and type for her juicy diva role.
The production is definitely worth a revisit but, surprisingly, not because of its starry replacements. The seriously scaled down – some say cheap – Trevor Nunn production is now, of course, thankfully less of a disappointing shock than it was the first time around and Nunn’s vulgarizing directorial touches seem to have become – also thankfully – softened with time and his physical absence. The triumphant aplomb Larkin has by now acquired in her role is matched by certain of her co-actors, especially Erin Davie, who has improved markedly as the cynical, unloved Countess Malcolm, and makes quite a delicious, high comedy meal of the role. Bradley Dean who played her husband at the performance I caught was much better than Aaron Lazar, for whom he understudies, with a sweaty boorishness that captures all the comic lack of humor of this macho buffoon of a character. I even enjoyed the much maligned Ramona Mallory as silly, virginal Anne Egerman – she has also gained in confidence and has something of the near-irresistible, endearing ineptitude of Ruby Keeler in those 1930s Busby Berkeley musicals, which happens to really work for her ditheringly clueless role. The always terrific Stephen R. Buntrock – who absolutely should be a Broadway headliner; what a Curley he was in OKLAHOMA! – took over the role of the valet who seduces Petra and invested it with sexy strength, literally so when he delightfully swept Larkin up into his arms at the curtain call. (How I yearn to see him take over some time in the role of Frederik Egerman, the true protagonist of the show, which he also understudies.) Hunter Ryan Herdlicka (too shrilly callow) and the lieder quartet unfortunately remain as vocally challenged as they were last winter – no change there, unfortunately.
Stritch by now is such a critics’ darling that she has actually received raves for her self-indulgent rampage. I saw the original road tour in Los Angeles in the 1970s, with the priceless Jean Simmons as Desiree, and Wicked Witch of the West, Margaret Hamilton, impossibly cast as Madame Armfeldt, whose legendary beauty and sexiness brought kings to their knees. A suspension of belief was necessary to any enjoyment of her performance, which was possible, as she filled it with so much nostalgic warmth. Such suspension is impossible with Stritch, who plays it as she does everything now: loud, bossy, contemporary urban and shamelessly audience pandering. (She now does what her lowest, camp-loving fans expect her to do, much as Tallulah Bankhead was once said to have done as Blanche DuBois.) At my performance, she went up on practically her very first line, dropping her Solitaire cards and ad-libbing, throwing you completely out of any filigreed fin-de-siecle mood. Lines which should have been delivered with a witheringly funny, mandarin imperiousness were merely barked out in a way that was as predictable as the obnoxious pointing gesture she employed at every exit, like a traffic cop gracelessly telling her valet in which direction to push her wheelchair. Her rendition of the song “Liaisons” was an utter debacle, the musical line was stretched to a hideous eternity and her insertion of an unbelievably “woo”-whoop at the line “he deeded me a duchy” disgustingly self-indulgent, no other word. She’s additionally not helped by an awful coiffure which looks like the hairdresser merely brushed a bunch of white locks over her trademark Greek fisherman’s cap. Who – royalty aside – in their right mind would EVER have been seduced by this butch, leather-lunged harpy? Well, maybe a Greek fisherman, who’d been at sea for a decade and wanted that hat back.
As for Peters, there’s no denying that her “Send in the Clowns” was the most perfect interpretation of the song since Judy Collins’, the delicate timbre of her voice, with its distinctive break and sweetness being perfectly suited to it. If only the rest of her performance were as fine-grained and elegantly heartbreaking. “Suburban” is the word that springs to mind about her acting here, which has a heavy-handed, sitcom obviousness, reminiscent of her more appropriately gauged sketch work on the old Carol Burnett TV shows, to it in scenes which call for a seductively gossamer touch. Desiree, a born actress, is nothing if not self-conscious, ever aware of her behavorial effects, but Peters drove her points home so hard, you recoiled from her. Catherine Zeta Jones, was, of course, no match musically for her, but her sheer gorgeousness and womanly assurance actually made her superior Desiree, believe it or not. As a result, even the brilliant Alexander Hanson, so shamelessly overlooked for any awards this past season, was forced to push during his scenes with her, which were slightly drained of the deft Cary Grant charm, of which he is otherwise is a past master. When Peters made her waltzing entrance to an enthusiastic audience ovation, her aristocratically erect posture and the pure joy at having her back in the theater in a really suitable role prepared me for an evening of total delight, which made all that followed all the more disappointing. As a renowned past Sondheim interpreter, did she not receive any direction and was merely left to her own misguided devices? A good, tough and tasteful director I’m sure could have sat on her and drawn an exquisite performance which easily could have matched the illumination of her (still unforgettable) “Send in the Clowns.”
Emergency Paging: Arthur Laurents.