Tuesday, August 10, 2010

New Casts on Broadway

A Little Night Music
Music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler
Directed by Trevor Nunn
Starring Elaine Stritch, Bernadette Peters, Alexander Hanson, Aaron Lazar, Erin Davie, Leigh Ann Larkin, Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, Ramona Mallory
Performances began on July 13, 2010
Walter Kerr Theater, 219 West 48th Street
nightmusiconbroadway.com

Race
Written and directed by David Mamet
Starring Eddie Izzard, Richard Thomas, Dennis Haysbert, Afton C. Williamson
Performances through August 21, 2010
Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street
raceonbroadway.com

Usually, Broadway shows bring in celebrities from TV to boost the box office when original stars leave. Two current hits, however, did it slightly differently. A Little Night Music replaced its legend and overrated movie actress with two legends; Race replaced its TV stars and underrated movie actress with a British actor, familiar TV face and understudy.

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Although David Mamet’s Race overturned 75% of its cast, it's none the worse for it. Race comprises the usual Mametian patter—replete with expletives rhyming with “luck”—as two lawyers and a new legal assistant butt heads with one another over a rich white man accused of raping a young black woman.

There’s not a lot of room for character development, but that’s fine in this case, because Mamet (who also contributes shrewdly succinct direction) provides a riveting text that literally reads in black and white. Parsing misunderstandings among people of all races and economic levels is what the playwright is after, and even though you can pull apart the plot holes like a red-sequined dress, Race does have juicy roles for its quartet of performers.

Eddie Izzard has taken over from James Spader as lawyer Jack Lawson: where Spader was all brilliant bluster, Izzard is more straightforwardly to the point. Dennis Haysbert registers more strongly as Lawson’s partner Henry Brown than David Alan Grier did (even if Grier’s overacting impressed Tony voters, who gave him a nomination). Afton C. Williamson’s assistant Susan is equally as icy and self-confident as Kerry Washington, and Richard Thomas remains the play's sturdy center as the possibly guilty but definitely pompous Charles Strickland.

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At the revival of A Little Night Music, Stephen Sondheim’s 1976 musical based on Ingmar Bergman’s classic comic film, it’s sad to see Angela Lansbury go, but Elaine Stritch, while remaining Elaine Stritch, is wonderfully caustic. I never warmed to Catherine Zeta-Jones, so replacing her with a true legend, Bernadette Peters, is for the best.

Watching the dalliances and near-dalliances of several men and women during a weekend in the Swedish countryside can be alternately exasperating and enervating, and Trevor Nunn directs with clever touches throughout, even when saddled with an inadequate set—especially in the overlong first act. Hugh Wheeler’s book tries too hard to out-clever Bergman, which it cannot do, although it stays true to Bergman's wistful but adult outlook on the idiocy of relationships.

Sondheim’s score and lyrics remain the main attraction, from the lovely “Remember?” and amusing “You Must Meet My Wife” to the outstanding chorus-led act openers, “Night Waltz” and “A Weekend in the Country.” And that’s not even counting “Liaisons” and, of course, “Send in the Clowns,” which the new gals make their own. Too bad that one of his richest scores is heard in a stripped-down version which mutes its orchestral lushness.

As Mme Armfeldt, Stritch—so acidic that you expect the stage to corrode beneath her—is at her bitter best during “Liaisons,” talk-singing in her inimitable way. Peters, as self-absorbed actress Desiree, is a touch hammy, which is certainly in keeping with her character. And when the famous first chords of “Send in the Clowns” well up, Peters turns Sondheim's standard into critical self-analysis that brings the conflicting emotions of her relationship with Frederick to the forefront, making a song that has become clich├ęd in other hands a very personal anthem.

Alexander Hanson shines as Frederick, the foolishly smitten middle-aged lawyer; Erin Davie beautifully embodies put-upon Countess Charlotte; and Leigh Ann Larkin makes a levelheaded maid Petra—too bad her rendition of the (admittedly difficult) patter song “The Miller's Son” is not up to snuff. But with Stritch and Peters, whatever its faults, this A Little Night Music soars.

originally posted on timessquare.com

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Have to say I liked the first cast of "Race" better than the new one. When I saw the new cast the other day the show just did not seem to pop the way it did before.