Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The Little Death

January 04, 2010

Angela Lansbury, Catherine Zeta-Jones
Photo: Joan Marcus 2009

Perhaps the only heartwarming thing about Trevor Nunn’s revival on Sondheim and Wheeler’s A Little Night Music currently on Broadway, is that it has generated an actual starring role for Catherine Zeta-Jones. Like an increasingly large number of shows in New York, a high profile star is now nearly required if a show has any chance of succeeding. While it is not a guarantee that things will go well, a star, particularly of the Hollywood variety, will get you some extra press and create a draw among the tourist classes, if at least for a few weeks. This is not by any means a new phenomenon. However, what has changed recently is that increasingly Broadway is the only place where these Hollywood stars (like Zeta-Jones, Jude Law, Daniel Craig, Hugh Jackman, etc) are in fact stars. Hollywood has proven time and again this year, that “stars” are rarely worth their price tag and if you want to actually open a film big you’re going to need talking hamsters, children’s toys, or 3-D aliens. And since Hollywood doesn’t need them anymore, Broadway may be the perfect place for many of these folks to go, especially if they’ve had the kind of theater background Ms. Zeta-Jones has.

Sadly, this particular paring has not resulted in a great revival. In fact Night Music may be the weakest Sondheim revival to hit Broadway in a decade. The problem is a lack of wistfulness and melancholy in a story that virtually reeks of it. Instead we get almost cutthroat characters looking out for opportunities to take advantage of one another at every turn to buttress their own egos. Nunn’s operating spirit here is less Der Rosenkavalier and more Valley of the Dolls. Zeta-Jones’ Desirée Armfeldt comes off as a cougar laying in wait and by the time she gets around to asking “Isn’t it rich?” you’re wondering why she suddenly went all reflective on you. Alexander Hanson’s Fredric Egerman is only marginally better. The only exception in this rather harsh if attractive production is the superb Angela Lansbury who appears for brief instances as Madame Armfeldt to show everyone around her exactly how to make even the smallest part a towering edifice. Sadly, her expertise doesn’t appear to be rubbing off as much as you’d hope.

from Kneehigh Theater's Brief Encounter
Photo: Kevin Berne 2009

After such a manicured and premeditated revival, seeing the Kneehigh Theater company’s production of Brief Encounter seemed like a burst of fresh, if freezing cold, air in an overheated musty theater. Director and adapter Emma Rice has taken Noël Coward's play and the subsequent 1945 film it inspired and made something both funny and full of admiration. This simple melodrama is offered as a love letter to films and British culture of the period. The show is crammed with simple stage magic handled by a compact troupe of multi-talented folk – singer, dancers, instrumentalists and puppeteers virtually down to the last person. The intentionally low budget props and sight gags all serve the purpose of recreating the look and feel of David Lean's film in the simplest and most direct terms. The sometimes campy slight of hand produces numerous instances of warm—never mean-spirited—laughter. There are some surprising moments as well, particularly when the cast interact with or step in and out of projected film images. Even with this tongue and cheek approach, though, the intent is not to overwhelm the source material but to try and preserve its melodramatic heart. And it works beautifully. Despite the clear self-awareness of the work Laura and Alec remain accessible and by the end you're just as crushed by the loss of their love. On Sunday's final performance of Brief Encounter at St. Ann's Warehouse, I got to see a couple big Hollywood celebrities. Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica-Parker were there and even though I was glad I got to see them, I was just as happy they weren't in the show, but got to join the audience that afternoon.

UPDATE: St. Ann's and Kneehigh have extended the run of Brief Encounter Through Jan 17th. So if you haven't seen it, this would be a great time to go.



Just wanted you and your readers to know that wasn't the final performance. It has been extended at St. Ann's through Jan 17
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