Tuesday, October 5, 2010

My Most Memorable Theatre Experiences: #7 A Little Night Music

I apologize now if I start gushing, but of my list of top 10 theatre experiences, the revival of A Little Night Music was my most recent show so it is incredibly fresh and vivid in my memory. This show was a highlight of my life as a theatre-goer for several reasons. First of all, it was my first experience with a Stephen Sondheim work live on stage, other than Sondheim on Sondheim, and I was certainly not disappointed. From the top of the overture the final waltz, I was enraptured by the intricacies of the music, eloquence of the text, and the actors' polished performances. I found myself humming in 3/4 time several days after seeing the show. I try to see as many theatrical productions as possible, particularly those with historical significance that have made a grand impact on the musical theatre canon, but perhaps the biggest draw for me was Bernadette Peters. I wanted to see A Little Night Music when Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury were playing Desire and Madame Armfeldt, but I simply had to see this production when Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch took over the lead roles.

I have been a big fan of Miss Peters since I started my vocal training. My voice professor in college was frustrated because I learned vocal technique very quickly, but she was having trouble teaching me to "act the song." Finally, she sent me home with a VHS copy of Sunday in the Park with George and said "watch Bernadette Peters and learn from her." At that moment I got it. I realized that in the musical theatre, one must deliver a song as the character rather than themselves and that that often means letting go of vocal technique in order to allow the characters' emotions to seep through. Because Miss Peters has had such a profound impact on my growth as an artist, I was delighted to finally have the chance to see her on stage.

I was literally shaking in my seat as the curtain rose in the Walter Kerr Theatre. The actors entered in darkness but the moment I saw her signature red curls, I knew that I was in the presence of my Bernadette. I expected to fall in love with Bernadette's performance, and I did, but I also fell in love with the entire company and the show as a whole. Elaine Stritch was perfection in her comic timing and Alexander Hanson was a debonair, yet vulnerable Frederick.  The younger cast members sparkled as well from Leigh Ann Larkin's Petra with her 11 o'clock showstopper The Miller's Son to Erin Davie's Charlotte and her acerbic sense of humor. But the true highlight of the evening for me was Bernadette Peters' Send in the Clowns. This is arguably Sondheim's most well known song and I've heard it many times over, but never truly understood its meaning. But in the context of the show and this specific scene where Frederick rejects Desire's love despite their history, I began to realize the weight of this song. They realize that they are in two very different places and when Desire is finally ready to love Frederick, he has found another wife, and the only way she can cope with the tragedy of the situation is to fake humor. In this respect, the song is truly heartbreaking and while Bernadette was visibly crying during her performance, I was doing the same from my orchestra seat, for many reasons. Not only was I feeling sympathy for Desire and her grief, but I was thinking of how lucky I was to finally see my idol perform live. (This is the point where I gush) I started thinking of how inspirational Bernadette Peters is as a performer and how giving she is to the audience. She has had such a long, illustrious career and she could easily retire or focus on film and concert work, but she has given us all the gift of returning to the stage where I am certain that a whole new generation of theatre-goers are falling in love with her at every performance. As I watched Bernadette Peters in A Little Night Music, I said to myself, "I will never forget this performance," and I'm certain that I never will.

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