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Passionate Conviction 

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WEST SIDE STORY

Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace

A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC

Goodman Theatre

In an interesting coincidence, two of the summer's major musical revivals climax with the same tableau: a woman kneels over her prostrate lover, just felled by a bullet. The image sums up the telling contrasts between West Side Story and A Little Night Music. In the first show the scene is tragic--almost remorselessly so, though the creators of this jazzy juvenile-delinquent version of Romeo and Juliet pull their punches by having Maria, unlike Juliet, survive her lover Tony, shot dead by a rival gang member. In A Little Night Music the image is turned on its head: the victim, Fredrik, has shot himself in a game of Russian roulette inspired by jealousy--and missed. He shrugs as he dusts himself off, helped by his relieved, bemused lover Desiree.

Gunshots aren't all these two landmark shows have in common. Both boast lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, of course; the 1957 West Side Story marked his Broadway debut (he accepted the assignment reluctantly because he was only writing the words), while the 1973 Night Music cemented his reputation as an innovative composer as well as a clever lyricist. Both shows owe their existence to Harold Prince: it was he who produced West Side Story following the 11th-hour withdrawal of Cheryl Crawford, and it was he who brought together Sondheim and playwright Hugh Wheeler to create a musical composed almost entirely of waltzes. It was also Prince, as director, who dictated the commercial compromises that make Night Music a lightweight entertainment: for all its intricate loveliness and wit, it falls short of the transcendent beauty and power that make West Side Story compelling despite its dated depiction of urban crisis.

What's missing from Night Music is passion. Not just erotic passion--though that too is in short supply, despite the self-consciously sexy posturings of Danny Herman's choreography, in Michael Maggio's visually beautiful, often funny, but finally disappointing revival at the Goodman Theatre. Night Music also lacks the composer's passionate conviction. Long after it's proved its boundary-stretching brilliance, West Side Story burns with the determination of composer Leonard Bernstein to create "a musical that tells a tragic story in musical-comedy terms, . . . never falling into the 'operatic' trap," as he described his intention when director-choreographer Jerome Robbins first suggested a Jewish-Catholic East Side Story in 1949. It also burns with its teenage characters' intense need to break the bonds that confine them in a dead-end life. (Some choose love, others choose violence; therein lies the tragedy.)

And in Gary Griffin's staging at Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace, West Side Story burns with the excitement of young stars who replace the usual white-bread innocence of their roles with hungry sexuality and impetuous energy. H.E. Greer, a newcomer to Chicago, is a streetwise Tony whose tough-guy attitude is touched with quirky diffidence. He has some vocal flaws, including a tendency toward overindulgent rubato--but they pale beside his thrilling high range and wonderful talent for blending operatic lyricism with conversational immediacy. His moving "Maria" conveys a sense of discovery too often lacking from this familiar song: each phrase springs freshly from the phrase preceding it. He's well matched by Jennifer Rosin, who brings a clarion soprano and an earthy urgency to Maria; her uncertain, hunted look as she shields Tony's body at the final curtain is stunning.

The lovers are well supported by the snappy sarcasm and powerhouse vocals of Michelle Duffy's Anita and by a boisterous chorus of gang guys and their girlfriends (costumed in delicious 50s style by Frances Maggio). There are some flaws: Nancy Teinowitz's choreography is workmanlike at best, Kevin Paul as the gang leader Riff makes mincemeat of Bernstein's jagged melodies, and Robert Byrd's portrayal of the chaperone Gladhand is marred by an unnecessary and insulting sissy stereotype. And what's a cop with a name like Krupke (Dev Kennedy) doing with an Irish brogue anyway? But the lead performances and the brilliance of Bernstein and Sondheim's score--replete with musical references from Mahler and Blitzstein to modern jazz and mambo, yet absolutely original in the way those influences are finally resolved--reaffirm the work's enduring power; I'm happy to say I was in tears at the end.

A romantic rondo for three contrasting couples, A Little Night Music doesn't aim to make its audience cry, and there's nothing wrong with that. But it does aim to create a mood of enchantment and mystery at the wonder and folly of life. The Goodman's production does fine by the folly: the first act and a half briskly and amusingly link various elements: Sondheim's playful operetta score, Wheeler's aphoristic script, the opulent Klimt- and Bakst-influenced designs of Virgil C. Johnson (costumes) and John Lee Beatty (set), rich-voiced and articulate choral commentary by a liebeslieder quintet, and some solid lead performances. Though Paula Scrofano's wide-ranging soprano is wasted on the actress Desiree, a part written for crusty-voiced Glynis Johns, she gives the role a warm, down-to-earth self-possession, which effectively cracks in her fine reading of the famous ballad of missed romantic opportunity "Send in the Clowns." Mark Zimmerman is engagingly self-effacing as Desiree's sometime lover Fredrik, a middle-aged lawyer hung up on his young wife, Anne, who regards him as a father figure, and Andy Taylor's fatuous intensity suits Fredrik's frustrated seminarian son Henrik (though Taylor is visibly too old for the part). Rengin Altay is sexy and smug as Fredrik's saucy servant Petra, though her aria of sexual independence, "The Miller's Son," is a pyrrhic triumph of technique over feeling in Altay's overchoreographed rendition. (Note: a line about marrying the Prince of Wales gets a laugh today that Sondheim never anticipated.)

The show starts to break down, however, with the entrance of John Herrera as Count Malcolm, Fredrik's competitor for Desiree, and Hollis Resnik as his clotheshorse wife Charlotte. These capable singer-actors are burdened with caricatured interpretations of their roles--the macho military man and his neurotically manipulative wife--and once the second act gets going, the needed balance between Desiree, Fredrik, and the Malcolms is entirely lost. Herrera and Resnik's cartoonishness also emphasizes the brittle artificiality of the script at its most contrived, detracting from the multidimensional ironic compassion to which Sondheim aspired, until Prince steered him in a lighter, lower-brow direction.

By the time of Fredrik's failed suicide and the quasi-mystical death of Desiree's aging-courtesan mother (a grande dame whom the miscast Ann Stevenson Whitney reduces to a common gossip), the lack of passionate conviction leaves Night Music's brittle facade exposed; what started out as a musky red wine of a show ends up as flat as unfinished champagne.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Greg Kolack.

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