Monday, January 12, 2009

A Little Night Music

A starry, likely once-in-a-lifetime cast assembled for what turned out to be a thrilling, unforgettable benefit reading of this Sondheim masterpiece, yet to be revived on Broadway. Some were revisiting roles played elsewhere before (Victor Garber, Marc Kudisch), but most were coming fresh: all showed up, despite the limited rehearsal time, with fully realized performances. Natasha Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave, the benefit's greatest casting coup, would have been more than enough on their own to make the evening special - Richardson's beguiling performance as Desiree capped with her nakedly emotional rendition of "Send In The Clowns", Redgrave's expert line readings bringing comic zing and fresh vitality to Madame Armfeldt - but all the casting was inspired. With her rare talent for barbing a one-liner, Christine Baranski has long seemed like she'd be a sensational Charlotte, and she was: the comic chemsitry between her and Kudisch, an absolutely ideal Carl-Magnus, was musical theatre heaven. I wasn't surprised that Stephen Pasquale aced young idealistic Henrik, but I was stunned that Jill Paice, an eleventh hour replacement for Laura Benanti, proved to be a revelation as child-bride Anne. Many have stumbled in the role, condascending to it rather than playing the girlishness with conviction, but Paice got it exactly right. As Petra, otherwise known as the servant who gets to sing "The Miller's Son" in the second act, Kendra Kassebaum was in the same league as Natascia Diaz, who brought down the house a few years back in the role at the Kennedy Center: high praise indeed. Because the full orchestra was center stage, and the actors seated to the sides except when needed at the row of stools at music stands, I sometimes found myself looking over at Vanessa Redgrave as she watched her fellow actors. Emotionally engaged, curious, highly attentive and ready with applause: she's not only the greatest living actress, she's probably the world's greatest audience member.

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