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June 8, 2010

9

Analysis: Peters and Stritch to replace Zeta-Jones and Lansbury in ‘Night Music’

by Jesse North

In an anticipated announcement Monday, it was revealed that Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch will replace Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury in A Little Night Music, effective July 13. Zeta-Jones and Lansbury will depart the show June 20, and the production will take a three-week hiatus, during which the actresses will rehearse.

This casting news effectively saves this production from shuttering, as it had already marked June 20 as its closing day. Until this point, the show’s producers had wooed numerous A-list actresses to assume the roles (Gwyneth Paltrow and mother Blythe Danner, Debbie Reynolds), but with no talks coming to fruition. Yet Peters and Stritch’s commitments to the show are a well-deserved saving grace for a high quality production.

I wonder if Peters felt slighted when she began talks for the role, since she wasn’t the first approached, and the other attempts were well publicized. Peters will fit the role extremely well, which makes me question why the producers hadn’t asked her earlier. Although from their first attempts at a replacement, it is clear they were looking for more Hollywood power, and Peters has more Broadway clout to her name than from film. Regardless, I don’t think her name will perform poorly at the box office, as she’s become one of those Broadway legends that people flock to see.

It’s a tiny problem, but nevertheless, I don’t think the producers are nailing the age-thing right when it comes to casting Desiree in this production. The role is of an aging actress, and the catty women in the show make a small handful of comments highlighting that (planning to wear white so their youth will become even more pronounced next to hers). It kind of set my teeth on edge hearing Zeta-Jones being referred to as an “aging” actress—she’s 40 (and looks better than most woman of any age). Peters at 62 isn’t an aging actress; she’s, quite frankly. an older actress. It’s not going to hurt her portrayal much, but still, she doesn’t fit the intended age of Desiree. (Neither did Rex Harrison when he was playing Professor Higgins into his 80s, so let’s avert the sexist angle and just accept that they’re actors and they’re acting.)

Stritch fits the mold of what the producers wanted for the role of Desiree’s mother, Madame Armfeldt. Replacing Lansbury—a Broadway legend—she’s a Broadway legend herself, and at 85 (less than a year older than Lansbury), she’ll be a headliner that audiences will make sure to come out and see, since the “How many more chances will we have to see her?” factor is in play. However, Stritch is not the Madame Armfeldt type. Yes, the role is an old woman who is blunt about her views, but part of the Stritch brand is brashness. Although she can obviously put on a British accent (the story takes place in Sweden, but everyone in the production hearkens their characters from Britain), Stritch is a consummate loud-mouth American. I don’t see her pulling off the refined quality of Madame Armfeldt.

Despite Peters’ age and Stritch’s mouth that could get in the way of their performances, they are fine actresses and worthy replacements to this production, which is absolutely not deserving of ending later this month. In a production built around two huge female names, the supporting cast manages to break through loud and clear. Ramona Mallory is shrill and increasingly annoying (as exactly she has to be) as the way-too-young wife Anne. Erin Davie is the ultimate high-society bitch as Charlotte. Hunter Ryan Herdlicka is a scene-stealer with his comically morose take on Henrik. And Leigh Ann Larkin brings a fresh splash of feistiness to the buttoned-up characters as the maid Petra (and couldn’t be sexier when she sings “The Miller’s Son).

While the story is in desperate need of trimming (maybe even chopping—clocking in at three hours) and Trevor Nunn’s direction becomes terribly stagnant during some scenes, this revival of A Little Night Music has gorgeous production value in the lighting, scenery, costumes, and orchestration. Harley T A Kemp dares to light some scenes of the show darker than is normal on Broadway, and it gives the story a wonderful romantic and rich look. The scenery is sparse, but what does exist on stage is so elegantly crafted by David Farley, as are his designs for the costumes. Pulling the darkness of Kemp’s lighting together are the deep, moody rolls of the cello, abundantly used in Jason Carr’s orchestrations. Night Music’s score is more complex and rich than most currently heard on Broadway.

Casting Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury in this show was extremely exciting news. Yet upon seeing that they weren’t the only gems of this production, Night Music’s renewal with Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch is most welcome.

What do you think, Rushers? Do you think Peters and Stritch suit these roles? Do you think Peters is too old for Desiree, or that Stritch might be too brash for Madame Armfeldt? And did anyone else notice the connection between Leigh Ann Larkin and Peters—them both having played in recent revivals of Gypsy, but different productions? Larkin played Rose’s daughter June in the 2008 revival and Peters played Rose in the 2004 revival. I guess we could say she’s her mother from another production? Leave it in the comments!

9 Comments Post a comment
  1. Linda
    Jun 8 2010

    First, I should say I wasn’t crazy about this production. I love A Little Night Music and I expected more. I agree with you about Trever Nunn’s direction, but I wasn’t crazy about the set either. I also don’t think that Ramona Mallory needed to be so annoying. The character is silly, but she can still be likable. But to answer your question about the new cast, I think that both Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch are wrong for the roles for the reasons you mentioned and have no desire to see either of them in the show.

    Reply
    • Jun 8 2010

      You’re probably right about Ramona Mallory. I liked her, but I think she was on one emotional plain the entire time. Good point. You agreeing with me makes me feel like I’m right ;-)

      Reply
  2. Mrmjk49
    Jun 8 2010

    This is just plain “sideshow” casting –bizarre and strangely self serving. Are Barry and Fran the producers??? These two ladies couldn’t be further removed from the intention of these two characters but I’d go out of car crash curiosity. Hopefully I will be proven wrong…..

    Reply
    • Jun 8 2010

      You’re right—it is casting with the intention of bringing in big names. While these two actresses don’t fit the parts wonderfully, let’s not forget that they are extremely talented and acclaimed, though. Who are Barry and Fran?

      Reply
  3. mrmjk49
    Jun 9 2010

    I just think no matter how much acting either of these women do, the audience will have to suspend their disbelief to China and back to even “feel” these characters. Both are such personalities that the fragility of this piece will be waylaid. B & F are the Weisslers of course, the king and queen of gratuitous oddball casting…

    Reply
  4. TD
    Jun 14 2010

    Actually, we did not like C ZT that much. We thought she was adequate and were surprised that she got the award. I know people thought she was brilliant.

    My husband and I actually talked about who might replace her because we loved the production otherwise. We immediately bought tickets when we heard about the new casting.

    Finally, actors and actresses have played away from their ages since there’s been theater. It’s what comes across that matters, and Bernadette is a theater icon with a great voice. Elaine Stritch too.

    Reply
  5. Chris Morehouse
    Jul 17 2010

    ALNM has been a hobby (obsession?) of mine since I was a kid, and I have seen several fine productions of this work. I certainly wanted to like this more. Still, this production, while not perfect, at least presented an adequate version of the work to a new generation. There’s lots to criticize, true: the scaled-down orchestra; exaggeration of some characters to the point of caricature (an annoying Anne, a whiny Charlotte); Petra’s pole-dancing. Yes, the human comedy plays out in all the roles, but they should not be so cartoonish as to lose our sympathy entirely. CZJ radiated youth, and so wasn’t entirely convincing as an aging actress. But I thought her portrayal was original, and struck a nice balance between emotion and restraint (though I preferred her far darker Tony performance to the show we saw). And there was real chemistry between her and the vastly underappreciated Mr. Hanson–for once, you could understand why they were the loves of each other’s lives, and that was all the more poignant. BP should be more convincing as an aging actress, and she has both the acting and vocal skills for this role (though sometimes, her voice can take on a smallness, a doll-like quality, that may work against her here). While Ms. Stritch is undeniably a legend, the producers may have done her a disservice here. She’s a dame, not a grande dame. Clips of her opening night performance on youtube are not inspiring, with shouted lyrics and bada-bing bellylaughs that comment on the lyrics (reminding us of Elaine, rather than Mme A’s melancholy musings). It may be one of those times when one performer’s style is so dramatically at odds with that of the other performers that they seem to be in two different shows–a tap dancer among the waltzing couples. If that’s the case, the blame belongs to the producers, not Ms. Stritch, who at least was game enough to attempt the role. Makes you wonder about the next recast, if it makes it that long. Still, middle-aged fool that I am, I am almost certainly going to have to see this for myself, so the casting strategy worked…

    Reply
    • Jul 18 2010

      @Chris: These are some excellent points, which I agree with, and haven’t thought of before! The performances are a bit cartoonish, and lose some of my sympathy as a result. And Catherine Zeta-Jones’ Tony performance was darker than in the show. I just didn’t realize it. This gave me a big “HMMM.” Thank you for your insights!

      Reply
      • Chris Morehouse
        Jul 20 2010

        Kind of you to say so. Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA did a terrific version in 1998, which highlighted some of the characters’ neuroses for comic effect (e.g., Henrik, Charlotte), but somehow, you still cared about them. The redoubtable Donna Migliaccio as Charlotte conveyed the character’s pain (memorably and amusingly, with gardening shears), but in a way that still made you root for her when she’s reconciled to her dragoon husband at the end. Last year’s version in Baltimore–distinguished by a strong directorial vision–put the general foolishness in perspective with an understated but vivid quote from one of Bergman’s other films, as a scene closed with the actors’ silhouettes gently and silently dancing offstage, single file, a kind of “march of fools,” perfectly summing up the twin themes of love making fools of us all and “the only other reality” (in the words of Mme A’s toast), death.

        Reply

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