I can’t really say it’s been an exemplary month in the world of my theatre-going. There were two trips: Ragtime at the beginning and Tyne Daly at Feinstein’s in the middle. The month saw its usual amounts of closings. Ragtime, Finian’s Rainbow, Superior Donuts, Altar Boyz and some other limited engagements ended their runs. It’s a bit tough to look on and see the critically acclaimed work fall short of the financial mark while underwhelming mediocrities walk away with the golden egg. However, like every other year there is always the promise of spring, and there are some high profile productions slated to open in the coming months.
I’ll be back at the Regency for Betty Buckley’s new show For the Love of Broadway next weekend, followed the next day by the Encores! revival of Fanny. I’m particularly excited for both: the former marks the first time I will have ever seen Ms. Buckley live in performance, the latter possesses a score that I have long admired.
The original Broadway production of Fanny was a big hit in 1954, running 888 performances and establishing David Merrick as a producer to be reckoned with. The show was based on Marcel Pagnol’s trilogy of plays which were also popular films in the 1930s.
In an attempt to repeat the success of South Pacific, Merrick went out of his way to bring as many folks on board. Initially Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg were on board, but they passed on the project. Rodgers and Hammerstein were approached, but they were at the point where they were producers of their own work and supposedly Rodgers disliked Merrick. Merrick was able to snag from the South Pacific team director and co-librettist Joshua Logan, singers Ezio Pinza and William Tabbert, scenic and lighting designer Jo Mielziner as well as the Majestic Theatre. At one point they even considered casting Mary Martin in the title role.
Unable to enlist Rodgers and Hammerstein, Merrick hired composer-lyricist Harold Rome. Rome has been known mostly for his revues and a light musical comedy Wish You Were Here. This would prove to be one of his most ambitious scores, often finding itself reaching operatic heights. Walter Slezak (who would win a Tony for his performance) and 20 year old future TV icon Florence Henderson (as Fanny) rounded out the cast. The show opened to positive reviews; there were some issues with the book. But the show proved an audience favorite with its story of young lovers separated; he goes off to sea, and she stays in Marseilles unmarried and pregnant. She marries a kindly older widower because he loves her, and because she knows he will provide her and her child. Melodrama and legit singing ensue. A cast recording was released by RCA. (I’ll go into greater detail on the music when I report on the Encores! production).
Logan and Rome collaborated on the 1961 film adaptation. In a move that would be replicated by the later musical Irma La Douce, the songs were dropped from the feature, and the musical themes adapted as underscoring. The non-musical drama starred Leslie Caron in the title role, Charles Boyer, Maurice Chevalier and Horst Buchholz. The film was a critical and financial success, garnering five Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture.
2010 brings about numerous birthday celebrations for Stephen Sondheim. Encores! will closed out its season with a rare NYC revival of his beloved cult bomb Anyone Can Whistle with Sutton Foster and (as rumor has it) Harriet Harris as Cora Hoover Hooper. Final word on casting is pending. There will be galas from the NY Philharmonic, Ravinia Festival, City Center, Roundabout’s Broadway run of Sondheim on Sondheim (much better than the alleged original title iSondheim) and many others. And of course, the Broadway revival of A Little Night Music continues to play at the Walter Kerr Theatre. So your options are ample.
I did see A Little Night Music starring the gorgeous Catherine Zeta-Jones and sublime Angela Lansbury. The musical has been long overdue for a Broadway revival. However, this production stumbles from its initial concept. Going for Chekhov off the bat, director Trevor Nunn misses the balance between the light and dark that makes the show a substantial, touching comedy. While I gather this production benefitted from the intimacy of the Menier Chocolate Factory, it is not conducive to plant a production built for a 150 seat theatre into the 990 seat Walter Kerr. The set is ugly, the costumes are drab, the orchestration anemic. I am loathe to place blame on the actors, as the problems with the production all stem from his misguided directorial vision for the musical.
Casting is uneven. Erin Davie is a bit of a mess, playing Charlotte as a victim with far too many tears. Aaron Lazar fares better. Hunter Ryan Herdlicka and Ramona Mallory are projecting a bit too broadly, with Mallory the worse of the two. Leigh Ann Larkin’s accent jumps through three countries in as many scenes. She sings well enough, but there is no directive for “The Miller’s Son” making it stand out more than usual. Alexander Hanson is the epitome of elegance and panache as the aging lawyer Fredrik Egerman.
Catherine Zeta-Jones brings star quality and an eagerness to the role of Desiree Armfeldt. However, in doing so she tends to lose some of the poignancy. There is a tendency for her to oversell her songs, as though trying to prove something. Her performance is far too mannered and comes into some semblance of humanism far too late. She’s gives an adequate performance, but it lacks the spark that has long made the role such a dynamite success for other actors (Glynis Johns, Jean Simmons, and Judi Dench to name a few). Angela Lansbury outdoes her Tony-winning performance in Blithe Spirit with a delicious, understated performance as the disapproving, observant Madame Armfeldt. In the eleventh hour, her character has a reveal so moving I was convinced that the legendary actress is destined for a record sixth Tony. If the rest of the production lived up to her stunning performance, I would say it was worth the ridiculously high ticket price they are asking.
What this revival points out to me is that no matter the production – the book and lyrics of Hugh Wheeler and Sondheim, respectively, can survive even the most inept handling of the material. This revival would have been better served with the Lincoln Center team- Bartlett Sher, Cathy Zuber and Christopher Akerlind – exploring and fine-tuning every nuance and color waiting to be revisited within this glorious musical.