Sunday, December 20, 2009

True Beauty: A Little Night Music





Saturday afternoon, the first big blizzard of the winter hits New York. I am out in it when the snow begins, making my way westward toward my apartment after some last-minute Christmas shopping on the Lower East Side. I’m not a fan of cold weather, but I always appreciate the soft beauty of a snowfall; even as the cruel wind whips across my exposed cheeks, I stop in Washington Square to watch the flakes swirl and spin, landing gently amongst their brethren after the fierce journey down from the sky.

Standing amidst the mounting drifts, as they begin to glow orange under the late-afternoon streetlights, I hear a distant ringing from deep within my many-layered sweaters. I dig; I extract; I answer the phone. And much to my delight, it is the call I’ve been waiting for all day – my heroic friend Sydney has successfully braved the weather and scored us two standing room tickets for A Little Night Music at 8pm.

By the time I reach the theater, the blizzard is in full-force. My winter boots slide across the sidewalk as I make my way into the Walter Kerr. I wedge myself into a myriad of bundled bodies and funnel into the building, grasping my ticket and holding onto Sydney’s mittened hand.

Inside the Kerr, the air and the atmosphere are warm. Coats, hats, and gloves are shed as people bustle to their seats; murmurs of relief that we’ve made it inside are exchanged. There is a festive sentiment amongst the crowd; before the show even begins, we have already shared something: the act of coming in together from the cold.

When the curtain goes up and the lights go down, and the music of Stephen Sondheim surges into my ears, I breathe it in. I am magically transported from freezing New York City to a sunny summer in Sweden. And for the next three hours, I remain there: lost in the story of Desiree Armfeldt and her dueling lovers; their two jilted wives; two longing children; and the watchful eye of the glorious Madame Armfeldt, who oversees the madness with active unconcern (the privilege, she explains to her granddaughter, of “the very old, who know too much”).

This is, it’s clear from the start, a marvelous production. Of significance is the return to Broadway of the incomparable Angela Lansbury, who hits every note (musical and comedic) with precision. At 84 years old, she is in a class of her own, and I feel deeply grateful to have seen her on stage not once but twice this year. Even as I’m immersed in the story of the play, I’m aware that I’ll be retelling my memory of her genius long into the future, to those who don’t share my fortune in seeing her perform live on stage.

The cast, as a whole, is splendid. Alexander Hanson, reprising the role he played in the London staging of this production, is an ideal Frederick – mature and handsome, and somehow empathetic even as he cheats on his (much younger, and still virginal) wife Anne – the pretty and sweet Ramona Mallory. Aaron Lazar’s Carl-Magnus is pleasingly over-the-top, and Erin Davie plays his wife Charlotte with the perfect combination of hysteria and quiet conspiracy. Leigh Ann Larkin, as the maid Petra, captivates with swinging hips and big, wet eyes. And a surprisingly strong voice comes from the slight body of Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, who, playing Frederick’s lovelorn son Henrik, is in his Broadway debut – and holds up quite nicely with the veteran cast.

Also, of course, making her Broadway debut, is the Hollywood movie star Catherine Zeta-Jones. She is beautiful and I know she can sing – she was awarded the Oscar for playing Velma Kelly in the 2002 film adaptation of Chicago, and deservedly so. However, I am simply unprepared for how entirely captivating, awe-inspiring, and truly breathtaking she will be onstage.

From the first moment she sweeps into view, it is as if light is emanating from within her. Her steps, her voice, the way she commands attention even when silent – I haven’t seen many performances like this in my theatre-going career, and as you may have gathered, I go to the theatre a lot. Is she technically the best actress I’ve ever seen? Will she win the Tony this year? I can’t even answer those questions, because I’m so overwhelmed with her loveliness that I’m no longer an objective judge of her skill.

I cry during “Send in the Clowns” – not as a reaction to the story but because of the way the spotlight reflects on her white neck, the sadness that radiates through her smile, the angle of her shoulders, and the perfect way her tiny hands lay in her lap as she sings. I am watching Audrey Hepburn, Liz Taylor, Rita Hayworth. These are the only women to whom, I can imagine, she might compare.

Three hours is long for any production, but I don’t notice the time slipping by during Night Music. On the contrary, I could stay in the theatre and watch the show immediately again. Unfortunately, when the house lights come up, the doors to the theatre are opened – and that snowy reality of winter in New York is upon me once again.

I layer on my hat, gloves, scarf, and coat, to shield me from the elements that exist in this real world. And as push out into the cold, and brace myself against the wind and sleet, I’m warmed with what I bring away from this glorious production: a reminder of human beauty; the gift of a brilliant, elegant cast; and the ability to get lost in the world of the Broadway stage.