A Little Night Music at Théâtre du Châtelet
There's this line in Bram Stoker's Dracula where Gary Oldman says to Winona Ryder, something like, I've crossed oceans of time to find you, and he turns "oceans" into a six-syllable word with that oddball Gary Oldman-type phrasing. It's meant to be romantic and significant in the context of the living dead, but it's also silly, and silly too that it's what kept playing through my mind as I skipped out of the Théâtre du Châtelet after A Little Night Music last week.
Oceans of time.
I don't know: shameless dramatic overkill? And did I say skipped? I meant danced. Twirled. Waltzed. Sailed. Floated, dot dot dot. As did the very proper bouclé-clad French matron who sat beside me and cheered during the curtain call (it was a very long curtain call). I have a soft spot in my heart for those proper French matrons, and how they sit up so straight and slim and tall, like there's a thread drawing from the bottom to the top, pulling them up, up, up. They dazzle by sitting still. I was afraid to sneeze next to her, like she might summon up the ghost of Coco at the merest twitch and I'd be out on my poor American tail.
Now where was I?
Twenty years is a long time to wait for a thing that on its face should be relatively simple, because A Little Night Music is performed all the time everywhere. Really, get yourself a copy of The Sondheim Review and look it up: everywhere. One of Sondheim's most accessible shows, they call it, although I never know what that's supposed to mean. They're all in English, for heaven's sake. They're all in language. (And here with the French subtitles, merci.) But in the past 20 years I've seen exactly two productions that I would call top drawer, and one of them was in college and the other was in Baltimore. The Broadway revival we won't talk about here.
But this was perfect. No small part of the big picture was the theater itself, which had the feel of an opera house, a towering space with a wide-open proscenium stretching up past the heavens, strung with three gold velvet curtains that swept across the stage to transition the scene changes. Smooth, unobtrusive, elegant. Here's a bedroom, sweep, look! now it's a dressing room, and all without a break, without a sound, a sofa suddenly appearing, a piano gone like that. Everything floated. And the whole thing—so massive! so majestic! so out of its time and somehow past its glory—the effect was to make the characters look their parts, to reduce them to what they are, wee and trifling, fools all, racing madly in circles in order to find what's right there, staring them in the face, kicking them in the shins, shouting THIS IS IT, into the void, the entire time. An amuse-bouche in which everything that matters is on the line.
I debated all week about whether to write this up at all, because it feels too internal, too of a piece with the whole experience of being in Paris, something I'm still not sure I want to let into the open. But of course I'll keep going:
Leslie Caron is the best Madame Armfeldt I've seen, and certainly the first to make me believe she was a courtesan worth her salt and years. This lady knows what grand used to be. Her gestures from the wheelchair were a little wavy, but she was a tart, winking little sprite who looked accustomed to sleeping in diamonds and pearls and intended to die that way.
Lambert Wilson was sad and rumpled and a Fredrik not overly assured of his prospects, who from my vantage point (Porte 01 Rang L Numero 13) even bore a slight resemblance to Len Cariou, which was lovely if you were Kari. Greta Scacchi was the right age and looked it, which was even lovelier: this is a woman whose choices have dwindled and whose chances are fading and knows it. The knowledge of it is in every step she takes, the way she tries to primp herself up the minute he starts singing about how she needs to meet his wife. Meet his wife! Her Desirée looked cheap and shabby (fine costume choices, colors just this side of garish)—and undeniably gorgeous, in a way that was both human and believable, a beautiful woman whose beauty is slipping into something else, something that used to be. And I know it's "smiles of a summer night" and all that jazz, but in the hands of these actors, this was an autumn story. Both of them dying on the vine, everything passing by. (During "The Miller's Son," they left Desirée's bed on the stage—see "very large stage," above—and she stood beside it, clutching Frederik's jacket, while this ripe young thing crowed on and on out on the grass about all the life she still has the time to lead, and there was a ruefulness and sort of cruelty to it that even "Send in the Clowns" couldn't touch.)
Rebecca Bottone as Anne was the other standout, in a performance that could not be bettered and a role I've never liked. Thin as a whisper, she played the part not as a dim bulb but simply naive, a very young girl who actually does love, in all the wrong ways, this man she married for all the wrong reasons. It's perfectly clear during "Now/Later/Soon" that she's tempted by him, attracted to him, considering it, and is both perplexed and genuinely distraught when he calls out another woman's name just as she's crawling into bed beside him. When she runs home crying after the theater, when she cries again during Charlotte's visit, it's because she senses something of value is at stake, not that she's losing a toy. Honestly, this character was the most unexpected and delightful surprise of the evening.
And the liebeslieders! They were fellow guests at a party at the beginning who stumble into an empty room trailing cigar smoke, to drink, make a little whoopie, then decide to try the piano, have a song. Bringing with them the sense that the party is already long over (it all had that Old World feel to it, tarnished and louche and weary). They were participants more than observers, not quite of the action but beside it, not talking to the audience so much as the characters. The women were dressed in bronze, pewter, slate, one of them playing "the play within a play" as a Cockney flower girl, the other a French barmaid, an epic of screwball nonsense as they waited, patiently, for the sensational Countess Celimène de Francen de la Tour de Casa to appear. Light before dark, bitter on top of sweet.
What else can I tell you? The direction was seamless, the set perfectly suited. The orchestra...the orchestra...the orchestra... Rising and rising, the violins, the cellos, flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, trumpets, harps, tubas, trombones, la la la. And into the night, into the rain, into Paris—across oceans of time—I danced.