Sunday, I stumbled onto my new favorite art form.
To be fair, the form is not entirely new, but this fresh twist on cabaret theater attained almost instant perfection for me during Austin Shakespeare’s “Songs of A Little Night Music” at the Parker Jazz Club.
Cabaret, jazz and musical theater have been closely entwined for more than a century. Additionally, the tradition of staging old musicals minimally, sometimes in a concert format, has remained popular for at least half a century. New York City Center’s Encore series has raised this setup to its ideal and has changed the course of Broadway history by reviving shows worthy of long runs and demonstrating — for all to see and hear — why others are not ready for revivification.
In this case, director Anne Ciccolella and music director Austin Haller did not give Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” a concert staging with dialogue and dancing, rather their cast of eight incandescent acting singers performed what could be called highlights from the musical’s cast albums. Meanwhile distinguished emcee Marc Pouhé provided a version of liner notes, including very short plot synopses at key points in the 75-minute show. Not a mere revue, this staging delivered the show’s story arcs to their emotional destinations, while weeding out the extraneous matter.
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The troupe had already done similar renditions of Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me Kate” as well as Cleo Laine and John Dankworth’s “Shakespeare and All That Jazz.” Both of those shows came with clear Shakespearean lineage. One might call Sondheim an American Shakespeare — given his range, probity and brilliance — but I suspect that he ended up at the optimal Parker Jazz Club because his work lands well within Ciccolella’s home territory, as she has proven again and again.
Who could go wrong with a cast that included Brett Barnes, Kara Bliss, Sharron Bower Anderson, Steven Bennfleck, Corinna Browning, Timothy O’Brian, Cindy Sadler and Emily Christine Smith? They tapped into Sondheim’s lyrics for all the humor as well as the melancholy with a sweep of operatic and Broadway-style voices. I must single out Anderson, whom I hadn't seen onstage in too long and who delivered a heartbreaking “Every Day a Little Death” along with the properly more bubbly Browning.
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Why am I so ecstatic?
Forgive me the extended personal history, but in 1973, I put needle onto vinyl in a darkened room and was swept into world so magical and so wise — especially as viewed by a 19-year-old theater student — that I had to see show right away.
Saw the original cast on Broadway that year. Gratified, but also strangely disappointed.
Saw the first American tour in 1974 or 1975. Still disenchanted.
Saw the West End cast in London in 1976. Not quite there.
Saw the disastrous movie version with Liz Taylor in 1977. Aghast.
Saw the Houston Grand Opera staging with Frederica von Stade in the 1999. Remarkably unimpressed.
Saw various versions since then staged in the Austin area and still so little magic. Perhaps because Austin Shakespeare’s version so closely resembled my teenage listening experience — with so much left to the imagination — it ranks as the best revival of “A Little Night Music” so far.
One last thing: I can think of some 200 Broadway musicals that could be revived in this elegant manner: Shows with faulty or sometimes offensive stories, shows with numbers that should be dropped.
Present them this well and I’ll show up every time.