Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Bernadette Peters, Elaine Stritch and me

On that first day of the New Year when all about many folks are coming up with special new ways to change their lives, I decided that perhaps this year I’d work on my Bucket List – hey, I’m not getting any younger. I’m still figuring out those wondrous things I hope to do, see and accomplish before all goes dark, but the one word that has come to mind as I go about this task is “unique.”

Without much effort, I stumbled into a “unique” opportunity while visiting the Big Apple with Miss Wendy earlier this month. It was a quick trip and our only plans were to eat at as many delis as possible and see as many Broadway shows as our budget would allow.

We ate our way through a couple of iconic Broadway spots – Carnegie, Stage – and a lesser known little brother, Ben’s, hidden around 38th and Broadway. We feasted on the expected – hot corned beef and pastrami, matzo ball soup and mushroom-barley; a little chopped liver, some kugel and a bit of cheese cake the size of my carry-on bag. The delis were nice; but, well, not particularly unique.

We spent three nights in the city and managed to work in three shows – “Mamma Mia!”, “The Lion King” and “A Little Night Music”. The picks were a mix of spontaneity, availability and budgeting. Ultimately, I think, they proved to be a euphonic blend of music, theater, Broadway kitsch – and one incredible moment.

Just in case you’ve been hibernating for a decade or so, “Mamma Mia!” is a high-energy musical focusing on young love, old dreams and the music of Abba! The theater was packed with European tourists and foreigners from New Jersey, clapping and cheering to such songs as "Dancing Queen"; "Honey, Honey"; "Knowing Me, Knowing You"; "S.O.S.", "Take A chance On Me" and "The Name Of The Game".

The theater lights, sets and costumes – white latex jump suits and sparkles, all mixed together with a touch of Kiss – offered up a festive vibe that made for an exceptionally entertaining evening. But was it unique? Well, not really.

I certainly was familiar with “The Lion King” story – saw the film years ago. But I was pleasantly surprised by the creative use of puppetry and costumes and the hypnotic blend of dance and music; sort of an afro-centric opera and ballet. But it was very Disneyesque – I’m thinking A Small World on steroids – and I had trouble investing much emotional energy in the production.

It’s been playing at the Minskoff Theater for years – one of the largest venues on Broadway – and on this night several thousand European tourists and, ah, foreigners from New Jersey packed the place. It was fun and entertaining; a nice way to spend the evening. But was it bucket-listing unique? No, not really.

While walking through Times Square, just an hour after arriving in Gotham, the always lovely Miss Wendy and I happened to pass the Walter Kerr Theatre and I noticed that “A Little Night Music” was playing. We stepped inside and asked about tickets. Turns out the show was closing in three nights and only a few seats remained. The not so good news is that we’d be sitting in the last row of the balcony. The really good news is that the seats were affordable.

Did I mention the show was starring Bernadette Peters – yes, that Bernadette Peters – and the venerable Elaine Stritch. I knew nothing of the actual story, but the music and lyrics were by Stephen Sondheim. It seemed cosmic forces were pulling together to create a bucket-list moment and all Wendy and I needed to do was stumble into the theater on our last night in Manhattan.

Our seats were a bit odd, sort of like sitting atop stools, peering down into a shadowy abyss. But the production was divine and nothing at all what I expected. It Turns out “A Little Night Music” is a little romantic comedy, a bit of a farce filled with twists and turns about love, loss and the absurdity of life.

Desirée – that would be the Peters’ character – performs the show’s signature number, “Send In the Clowns,” with “an emotional transparency and musical delicacy that turns this celebrated song into an occasion of transporting artistry.”

Those are the words of Charles Isherwood, the New York Times reviewer, who also wrote last August, when Ms. Peters took over the role from Catherine Zeta-Jones, that he had never “experienced with such palpable force … the sense of being present at an indelible moment in the history of musical theater”.

Five months later, Ms. Peters was still managing to raise goosebumps when she took center stage. The theater seemed to go black for a moment and totally quiet as two slight chords hinted at the song to come – Isn’t it rich? Are we a pair? A single light focused on Desirée and Ms. Peters took full advantage of the moment and delivered yet again a memorable performance. Mr. Isherwood’s words remained true for our performance also.

"The halting phrases of the song suggest the overwhelming emotion Desirée is just keeping in check. Ms. Peters invests each brittle line with a full measure of feeling without losing the arc of the music or any of the delicate irony in the lyrics."

Looking about for a moment, I noticed everyone bending toward the stage, attempting to catch every word, inflection, bit of sound, light and magic hanging in the room. I knew that this instant was special, bucket-list unique.

The moment now is a memory, something Wendy and I will always have and share. Ms. Peters offered us – and thousands of others over the last several months – a poignant look at one side of the human condition. Guess I can check “Memorable Night on Broadway” off the list.

Bernadette Peters (photo above) sings “Send In the Clowns” during a recent performance of the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical “A Little Night Music.” Credit: The New York Times

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