I’d say Bernadette Peters’ greatest gift is getting me to love a song I’ve hated for the last 20 years—and for this song, more than any other, that’s like a Nobel Prize-level feat. Now I’ll go back to hating every other version, because I have not yet lost my mind. HAHAHA HAHA HA HA!
Just two, actually:
With the blessed addition of Bernadette Peters, there is finally someone who trusts the material and knows how to breathe inside of it. This is dream casting come true, a sure-footed comedienne with a light and generous touch who can command a stage, deliver a line, and get a laugh without looking like she's cramming for a test in it. (And a special thank you from me for that.) That she can turn around and break your heart while doing all of the same, however, is the key that unlocks the character. Desirée is a fool and knows it, it's in every step she takes. She knows, too, that her last chance is passing her by, and the knowledge costs her; it's a desperate hope that prods her on, in spite of everything, that makes her hitch up her skirts and start plotting, because that's what mama taught her to do.
As for that mama: oh, Elaine. Although she veers occasionally into too-literal line readings and I could've done without the snore that ended "Liaisons," I'm not sure how any character created by Hermione Gingold ever got tagged for its patrician elegance or comic restraint. This Madame Armfeldt is no lady; she's got the sharp eye of a bawd and gives the impression that she grabbed every advantage that came her way because she had no choice. These aren't harmless bon mots she's sprinkling around, they're cautionary tales carved out of hard experience. Mostly, though, what you get with Elaine Stritch is the irrepressible life force of Elaine Stritch, which is what makes it all the more poignant to see her confined to that wheelchair, and to watch her try to talk her way backwards, back out of it. It's palpably painful for her, sifting through these memories, and they seem to haunt more than comfort her; she doesn't disapprove of her daughter, she's scared for her.
I still can't say I love the production, which is still too dark, too slow, and too cheap, but this—these ladies sharing these roles on this stage—is both a joy and a privilege to behold.