Around this time last year there was a controversy in the New York theatre world over an actor in an off-Broadway play who had had trouble learning the script and had resorted to an ear piece. It then emerged, if I remember correctly, that Angela Lansbury had used one. At the time I was a little sceptical about the justifications advanced for this. After my experience this afternoon I can only say that the marriage of Elaine Stritch to an earpiece is an absolute necessity. This is because, to paraphrase Flanders and Swann, not only does Elaine Stritch not know her second line, she doesn't even know her first. God knows what the cast, not to mention the poor prompter, are going through with this because it is further complicated by what, for want of a better word, we shall call the Stritch Style. The Stritch Style has two elements – a booming delivery, and the long, pregnant pause. If she pauses long enough, she appears to reason, she might remember her line. The challenge for her colleagues, and indeed the prompter, is to try and discern at what point intervention is required. In any show, this would be a serious problem, but in Night Music it is especially so because Madame Armfeldt so often has to move the action forward,
Needless to say, these difficulties cast something of a pall over Act 1. Nor are they the only ones. In London, Anne Egerman was played by Jessie Buckley in her first leading role. She was very very good. Here Ann is played by Ramona Mallory. She looks very beautiful, and has a somewhat uncanny resemblance to Bernadette Peters, but her delivery of lines is almost as maddening as Stritch's. She inserts asinine giggles and laboured pauses, uses various rather bizarre accents, and has a manner of snatching her breath during musical numbers which tends to destroy the sense of the line.
So why, given these problems, would I still recommend you see this show (even if you saw it when it was originally done in London; if you saw it in New York with Angela Lansbury I suspect the case is far weaker and must rest on how much you admire Bernadette Peters)? To begin with, there are some excellent supporting performances. Bradley Dean was apparently a stand-in as Carl-Magnus. All I can say about that is that it is a crime this man is labouring in the chorus – he was superb – his delivery of In Praise of Women a highlight of Act One. Equally good is Leigh Ann Larkin as Petra, who gives a mesmerising performance of The Miller's Son. The greatest strength of both these performers is they understand the need for subtlety in this show – something which Elaine Stritch has long since discarded along with the script.
It may seem odd that I have not yet discussed the other two leads – Alexander Hanson (Frederick Egerman) and Bernadette Peters (Desiree Armfeldt). Hanson is as good as he was in London. Peters has only just started in the role, and I think that once she and Hanson have got used to each other it will be a really special experience – there are already some powerful moments. However it is not quite there yet – and the barometer for this is Send in the Clowns – it needs to emerge organically from what has taken place to that point (as it did in the original London performances) and with this pair it is not quite yet doing that.
A word is also necessary about the musical direction. Rob Bowman's main claim to fame (judging by his programme bio) is his previous work with Elaine Stritch (indeed, one suspects that Stritch would not appear without him). He has not yet got the measure of Sondheim's score which needs a certain quality of wistfulness which Bowman has not yet tapped – the waltz choruses in particular were a bit too driven. Here as elsewhere there is a need for a little more subtlety.
In the end, Sondheim and Wheeler's genius still transcends these various flaws. Stritch for all her problems managed to bring tears to my eyes in the marvellous scene where she talks about the love of her life. Peters and Hanson achieved the same when they finally embrace. But it could be, and was in London, so much more.