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Sondheim Celebration: Merrily We Roll Along; Passion; A Little Night

August 18, 2002
By Charles Isherwood

Limited runs, an air of occasion and the chance to perform the works of the preeminent Broadway composer-lyricist of the past few decades
insured this summer's Sondheim Celebration at Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center would be stocked with stage stars both established and upwardly mobile. And so it was, often to exciting effect. But the brightest light of the festival -- aside from Mr. Sondheim himself, of course -- never appeared onstage. As this ambitious undertaking draws to a close -- the last of the six Kennedy Center-produced shows run almost through the end of the month -- the performance most worth celebrating might just be that of the man with the plan, the Kennedy Center's new president, Michael Kaiser. A tantalizing question hangs in the air: What can he do for an encore?

At the box office, the festival has been a roaring success. Most of the performances sold out well in advance, with the quasi-operatic and decidedly somber "Passion" bringing up the rear in terms of ticket sales (a forceful rave from the New York Times' Ben Brantley might help clear up that problem). Overall, the critical reception has been enthusiastic, too, with qualms about some of the productions outweighed by hosannas for others, as well as general admiration for the high standards brought to bear on all aspects of the festival, from sets and costumes to coffee mugs in the gift shop.

Sondheim lovers who took in all six of the shows will no doubt be debating the merits of individual productions for years to come, but for this critic Team A ("Sweeney Todd," "Company" and "Sunday in the Park With George") outpaced Team B ("Merrily We Roll Along," "A Little Night Music" and "Passion") in terms of overall accomplishment. This may be in part due to qualities inherent in the musicals themselves. "Night Music" is among the composer-lyricist's most fully realized and frequently staged shows, but it was a lackluster entry here. "Merrily" and particularly "Passion" fared better, but "Merrily" had a torturous time on Broadway and remains problematic, while "Passion" -- in perhaps the most stylistically cohesive production of the festival as a whole -- is nevertheless very recalcitrant indeed as a piece of entertainment.

Sadly, the talented director Mark Brokaw's "Night Music" was alone among the summer's six productions in having little to recommend it. With its enchanting waltz-based score and operetta-like Scandinavian setting, "Night Music" is nothing if not accessible; all the more peculiar, then, that Brokaw's cast seemed determined to translate its cultivated air of romantic sophistication and worldly wisdom into rhythms recognizable to audiences weaned on sitcoms. (Then again, with audiences lapping up the witticisms-turned-wisecracks, perhaps they knew best.) This was "Night Music" as delivered not by a string quartet on a manicured lawn but by a brass band in a beer garden; the actors seemingly took their cue from Woody Allen's gloss on the same material, "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy," rather than the Ingmar Bergman picture that inspired the musical.

Blair Brown, by no means a musical theater specialist, sang Sondheim's "pop" hit, "Send in the Clowns," quite fetchingly, infusing it with the requisite sad bemusement and a plangent sense of lost chances. So why was such emotional authenticity largely missing from the rest of her performance as Desiree? Randy Graff's Countess Charlotte was even more lacking in delicacy; Graff seemed determined to approach every one of the character's wry asides as if banging a gong. Barbara Bryne wasn't particularly convincing in conveying the sophistication of Madame Armfeldt, either, although she, too, scored high by the only standard anyone onstage seemed to care about, which is to say the ratio of belly laughs to lines of dialogue. Sarah Uriarte Berry's Anne Egerman, the dissatisfied young wife of Desiree's former lover Fredrik, moved quickly from girlishly charming to girlishly irritating; one wanted to take scissors to her bobbing curls well before the end of the evening.

A heavy-handed approach to characterization hobbled stretches of "Merrily We Roll Along," too, although Christopher Ashley's production gained in appeal as it moved toward a concluding scene that was as emotionally potent -- thanks above all to the sublime beauty of the song "Our Time," splendidly performed by central trio Michael Hayden, Raul Esparza and Miriam Shor -- as anything seen on the Eisenhower stage this summer.

"Merrily" has been tinkered with and revised more than once since its original Broadway production, but, to borrow a line from the axed choreographer of the Broadway production, as quoted in Craig Zadan's still-indispensable book "Sondheim & Co.," it's still backwards. This isn't an idle quip. We look to art to reorder the truths of life in aesthetically pleasing form, but the fact of life that most resists such artistic tampering is its unstoppable forward momentum. To reverse time onstage is to advertise the factitiousness of the artistic enterprise, and even the most skilled artists will be hard-pressed to erase the disorienting air of artificiality it establishes. (No, I don't think it works so well in Pinter's "Betrayal," either, and the Kaufman & Hart "Merrily" has never been popular.) Tracing the chain of causes and consequences in reverse is interesting as an intellectual exercise, but for most people musical theater must satisfy emotionally before anything else.

That said, the accomplishment of this particular staging is that it does accrue a measure of charm and emotional resonance as it rolls backward into the past. The first act of George Furth's book still seems to be a round robin of bickering between Hayden's composer-turned-movie producer (how's that?) Franklin Shepard and everyone else onstage. And a flagrantly miscast Emily Skinner, playing Franklin's bitch-star second wife Gussie Carnegie -- even the names in this show seem contrived -- begins promisingly but soon threatens to swallow scenes whole with her laugh-spinning but misguidedly campy turn. (With her frightful red wig and series of cleavage-bearing gowns, she seems to have been encouraged to model her turn on an old-school drag queen.)

But Raul Esparza, as Franklin's writing partner Charley Kringas, and Miriam Shor, as novelist-turned-critic Mary, give fine accounts of sketchy characters, and Anastasia Barzee makes much of minimal stage time in her incisive, touching performance as Franklin's first wife, Beth. The second act numbers "It's a Hit," "Bobby and Jackie and Jack" and "Opening Doors" are performed with ample verve and charm, dispelling the sour mood established in act one for good. So by the time Franklin and Charley and Mary convene on the roof of their apartment building to watch Sputnik trace a trajectory in the sky, the air is cleared for "Our Time," and the heart is open to its unabashed melodic beauty and lyrical hopefulness, made painfully poignant, of course, by the knowledge of what has gone before -- or rather after.

If writing a show in reverse seems perverse, that's nothing compared to the challenge Sondheim and James Lapine set themselves in writing "Passion," in which Sondheim's affection for emotionally knotty central characters reaches its apotheosis. (Or so one hopes!)

La Fosca (Judy Kuhn), the hypersensitive invalid who bends an army officer to her romantic will despite his declared love for a far more attractive and emotionally mature woman, is an unremittingly unpleasant character: selfish, self-pitying and almost comically morbid. And the process by which she transforms herself from reviled object of pity to dearly beloved is really quite dubious: If emotional manipulation were this easy and effective, we'd all be skulking around in black muslin, acting neurotic and stalking the objects of our outrageous crushes. Who would need

But Eric Schaeffer's production was admirably true to the rigorous integrity of this meticulously crafted musical. Set designer Derek McLane, whose distinguished work was an asset to all of the Kennedy Center productions, enclosed the stage in walls of dilapidated shutters that neatly suggested the inbred, stifling atmosphere that made Michael Cerveris' finely sung Giorgio susceptible to Fosca's peculiar emotional sorcery. Howell Binkley's stark and moody lighting abetted this ominous mood.

Kuhn's performance as Fosca was musically superb and dramatically impeccable, but it was very much in the grim mold of Donna Murphy's Tony-winning original. An enterprising actress might do herself (and the show? and the audience?) a favor by bringing a subversive measure of softness and -- dare I suggest it? -- charm to the character, however much it might go against the severe grain of the authors' intentions; although the repulsive nature of the character is surely the point ("love within reason -- that isn't love," as Giorgio sings), it is also what makes the musical both unappealing and unbelievable.

Sondheim restricts his music, too, to carefully measured ripplings of melody deftly knit together to create a seamless whole. This is clearly a score whose subtlety and integrity rewards repeated listenings. Impressive, too, is the orchestral coloration, with some hauntingly lovely strains from the woodwinds associated with the character of Fosca hinting at beauties in the soul of the character that are buried beneath a carapace of bitterness and disappointment. The Kennedy Center Orchestra, under the baton of music director Patrick Vaccariello, performed impressively.

As Giorgio, Cerveris brought an appealingly natural contemporary edge to his character, despite dialogue that can climb toward the stilted (did everyone in 19th-century Italy really converse in such crisp declarative sentences?). And Rebecca Luker was a vocally lush and effortlessly touching Clara. But for this viewer, performers, characters and the musical as a whole are straitjacketed by the theses about the nature of love that the authors try and, I think, fail to prove. Even expertly realized, "Passion" remains a musical that, like its odd heroine, will probably work its strange charms only on a select and susceptible group of admirers.

Merrily We Roll Along
Directed by Christopher Ashley.
With: Raul Esparza, Michael Hayden, Miriam Shor, Anastasia Barzee, Adam
Heller, Emily Skinner, et al.
Choreography, Karma Camp. Sets, Derek McLane; costumes, David C.
Woolard; lighting, Howell Binkley; sound, Tom Morse; projections,
Michael Clark; orchestrations, Jonathan Tunick; music direction, Eric
Stern. Opened July 14, 2002. Reviewed Aug. 9.

Directed by Eric Schaeffer.
With: Michael Cerveris, Judy Kuhn, Rebecca Luker, Philip Goodwin, John
Leslie Wolfe.
Sets, Derek McLane; costumes, Anne Kennedy; lighting, Howell Binkley;
sound, Tom Morse; orchestrations, Jonathan Tunick; music director,
Patrick Vaccariello. Opened July 21. Reviewed Aug. 11.

A Little Night Music
Directed by Mark Brokaw.
With: Blair Brown, Barbara Bryne, John Dossett, Randy Graff, Douglas
Sills, Kristen Bell, Sarah Uriarte Berry, Natascia Diaz, Danny Gurwin,
Erik Sorenson.
Choreography by John Carrafa. Sets, Derek McLane; costumes, Michael
Krass; lighting, Howell Binkley; sound, Tom Morse; orchestrations,
Jonathan Tunick; music director, Nicholas Archer.

Opened Aug. 4, 2002.
Reviewed Aug. 10.

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