Why? Because Bernadette Peters is now proving eight times a week that you didn't deserve it. It's not as though you embarrassed yourself in A Little Night Music. Far from it. Your Desiree was never less than professional, but never more than merely competent. Let's be honest: the only reason you got that award is that the Tony voters wanted to congratulate themselves on being able to attract A-list Hollywood talent to Broadway, and to encourage other stars to make the trek east.
But now, visitors to the Walter Kerr Theater in New York can see how a real star of the stage comports herself in one of the best female roles in the musical theater canon.
To be sure, Bernadette is not without her mannerisms and eccentricities, which are on full display here. Peters seems hell-bent on wringing every possible laugh from Hugh Wheeler's urbane and literate script, whether through exaggerated line readings or shameless mugging, even when she's not the immediate focus of the scene. But the marvel here is that it works, and swimmingly so.
When I saw Zeta-Jones play the role (read my review), there was a definite sense of nervousness about her, despite her striking beauty and killer smile. And that anxiety was contagious. But with Bernadette, I just sat back and enjoyed being in the hands of a seasoned stage performer. It reminded me of seeing Maggie Smith in Lettice and Lovage or Three Tall Women. In both cases, I knew she was hamming up a storm, but I eagerly and ravenously devoured every last scrap of pork.
And when it comes to hearing Bernadette Peters interpret Stephen Sondheim's ravishing score, well, there's just no comparison. Zeta-Jones was on pitch (mostly) throughout the show, but her delivery of "Glamorous Life" was irritatingly labored, compared to Bernadette's joyous playfulness. And "Send in the Clowns" in Peters' hands is a tour de force. Suddenly the mannerisms die away, the defenses are down, and we're left with a masterful performer laying bare a raw and palpable sense of loss and regret. It's nothing less than stunning.
And then there's the formidable Elaine Stritch. With all due respect to the wondrous Angela Lansbury, Stritch has a much firmer grasp on the humor inherent in the role of Madame Armfeldt. Of course, Elaine is showing her age much more than Angela was. Elaine's pacing is extraordinarily slow, giving the impression that accessing every single line and lyric is a chore. The show is about 15 minutes longer than it was with CZJ and Angela, and most of that extra time comes from Stritch's continual grasping and shameless backphrasing, particularly on "Liaisons."
But, again, it works. Stritch is every bit the pro that Bernadette is, and she knows her way with a caustic one-liner. In fact, she can make almost any line into a caustic one-liner, whether the authors intended it or not.
When I first heard that Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch would be taking over for CZJ and Angela Lansbury, I was skeptical. I wasn't sure that either was right for her respective role. But after seeing the show, I can confidently announce that both women suit their parts admirably, bringing a spark of vitality to a production that was sorely lacking in same prior to their accession. These consummate professionals breathe bountiful life into a formerly moribund property. It's an amazing sight to witness.
NOTE: New Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulations require bloggers to disclose when they accept anything of material value related to their blog posts. I received complimentary press tickets to this performance of A Little Night Music.