Posted in Television

Charmer

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Did you ever give up on a TV show because you finally realized you just didn’t like spending time with the characters? Then tune into PBS for the most human—and humane—series to grace the tube in quite a while: the BBC import, “Last Tango in Halifax” (check those local listings).

It’s not quite like anything else I’ve ever seen. You’re sure the characters will be acting a certain way, but instead, they’ll surprise you by doing a 180. When you hear the basic premise of the show, you may gag and think it’s all cutesy-poo. But you couldn’t be more wrong. It’s about some interesting and sometimes complicated people with particularly messy lives, though soap opera it isn’t. So without further ado (though with a program note for the Amurricans reading this: the “Halifax” we’re talking about is in West Yorkshire, not Canada):

Alan (Derek Jacobi) and Celia (Anne Reid), both widowed and in their late 70’s, were teenaged sweethearts who lost touch when her family moved to Sheffield and her friend failed to deliver a crucial explanatory note to Alan. However, when Celia’s brainy grandson sets her up on Facebook, she links up with Alan once more, and the two arrange to meet in person. Their afternoon together has to be seen to be believed, and by the end of Episode 1, they’re engaged, much to the dismay of their respective adult daughters. But all this is mere prelude.

Alan’s daughter, Gillian (Nicola Walker) is a widow with a teenaged son. She runs a farm, but to make ends meet, works part-time at a local supermarket. She’s having an affair with Paul, a co-worker not much older than her son, who seems to specialize in kissing and telling. Then there’s Celia’s daughter, Caroline (Sarah Lancashire), the head teacher at a rather prestigious school (Americans, think high school principal or prep school dean), who’s married with two teenaged sons. Her husband, who previously left her for another woman, now wants to return—he’s discovered his inamorata is a drunk. But there’s a slight wrinkle: while they were separated, Caroline started some spooning of her own with Kate, a young teacher at her school. I told you it wasn’t simple.

The writing on this show is superb. Sally Wainright, who created “Last Tango in Halifax” and wrote all six episodes now airing on PBS, does a heroic job of avoiding all clichés. Alan and Celia are neither the old folks from “Cocoon” pining for rejuvenation, nor any variety of old codger, lovable, irascible or otherwise, their joint purchase of a Lexus convertible notwithstanding. Charming? Absolutely. But always realistic, sometimes to a fault. Both have revealed the problems and dissatisfactions in their respective marriages: Celia’s husband constantly cheated on her, and Alan, while perhaps content during the intervening years, doesn’t really seemed to have loved his wife. You think “It’s so wonderful they’ve found each other again,” but cracks in the plaster are beginning to appear. This past week saw their political differences come to the fore (he’s an unabashed Labourite, she’s a Conservative though she “didn’t mind Tony Blair”). More to come, I’m sure.

The four leads are wonderful. I’ve been a fan of Derek Jacobi since “I Claudius,” and his Alan is such fun to watch. So far his best moment was a silent one—his awestruck, head-over-heels gaze at Celia over the breakfast table, the morning after. It’s hard to believe that Anne Reid is the same actress who played Mrs. Thackeray, the cook in the “Upstairs, Downstairs” sequel—talk about range. Her “TMI” moment with Caroline when she won’t stop nattering about having sex with Alan was priceless. And Nicola Walker made me catch my breath when Gillian’s world seemed to be caving in, what with her son leaving home over her affair with Paul, only to learn that he’s moved in with her “right bastard” brother-in-law, a cop who thinks she murdered her late husband (false).

Top honors, though, have to go to Sarah Lancashire as Caroline. Hers is the most complex character, and the most pleasantly surprising. She’s got a look that kills: check out her expression when she comes home from work only to find her lay-about husband flaked out on the sofa, drunk, not having lifted a finger to start dinner. I howled at her decimation of Kate’s confidante and fellow teacher, who attempts to blackmail Caroline over that relationship (“Sod off you little prick! Don’t you know it’s 2012? The ladies have landed!”). And her heartbreaking confession to Kate about how growing up in the midst of her parents’ loveless relationship rendered her so ill-equipped to be a friend, let alone something more.

There are three more episodes of “Last Tango in Halifax” set to air on PBS in the coming weeks, and I intend to soak up every one. The good news is that there’s a Season Two now filming in the UK, which should come our way next year. Can’t wait.

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Posted in Broadway Musicals, Movie Reviews

A Little Night Music

A Little Night Music

Have I mentioned I grew up at a time when the Broadway musical was still in its prime (not to mention affordable)? Because I was lucky to live in the New York metropolitan area, I was able to see the original productions of so many shows now considered to be classics. One of the best–and loveliest–was Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music.”

Based on the Ingmar Bergman film, “Smiles of a Summer Night,” “A Little Night Music” stands apart from other Sondheim shows. Its music doesn’t sound like anything else he’s written, and the wry romance of the story resulted in his wittiest lyrics. There’s no doubt the excellence of the work rests a great deal on what Bergman already created. In style his film is reminiscent of the Mozart/DaPonte operas–it almost begs to be sung. Despite the satisfactory rearrangement of the lovers, you’re left with the impression that all happy endings are evanescent (It’s a safe bet that Charlotte and Carl-Magnus Malcolm will probably grind each other down into dust). But the reward is a visually beautiful film directed by a master, with Gunnar Bjornstrom and Eva Dahlbeck as Frederick Egermann and Desiree Armfelt so ridiculously good together they outdo even Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.

The original production of “A Little Night Music” was a bit sweeter than the Bergman film. Charlotte Malcolm was sharply comic, rather than tending toward tragedy, Carl-Magnus was a barihunk without quite the wit of his film counterpart, Frederick was somewhat less dry, and it was obvious that his relationship with Desiree had ended many years earlier than in the Bergman version (Desiree’s child is a girl who’s about ten years older than the film character’s son). On stage, William Daniels, who had replaced Len Cariou as Frederick Egermann, was wonderful in the role. The sheer theatricality of the show was such fun: “The Glamorous Life” (“Bring up the curtain, la la la”) accented by a harp glissando and Desiree’s sweeping gesture to cue the scenery of the play within the play; the clever design of Charlotte’s hobble skirt, which turned out to be culottes; that breath-taking moment when the curtain rose on the second act, with the cast lounging on the lawn of Desiree’s estate, all dressed in their beautiful summer whites. Not to mention how wonderfully Glynis Johns sang “Send in the Clowns” so late in the show’s run, yet making it sound like fresh thought. It’s hard to think of another show that could match that production in elegance.

Glynis Johns as Desiree
Glynis Johns as Desiree

“Night Music,” musically speaking, is all of one piece. Every song in the score, waltz or not, is in three or its multiple; the unstoppable “A Weekend in the Country” is in 12/8. But your ear is never bored since Sondheim plays with tempo throughout the show and tricks you into thinking he’s doing alternate meter as in “The Glamorous Life.” However, I think the most crucial musical ingredient is the contribution of Jonathan Tunick, perhaps the most gifted orchestrator Broadway has ever seen. He adds warmth to the score with some lovely woodwind writing, especially for alto flute and English horn, and he softens the odd tonality of “Night Waltz I” (“The sun won’t set..”) with those lush strings.

It’s difficult to pick a favorite moment in “A Little Night Music.” “A Weekend in the Country,” with its busy choruses and Charlotte’s sage advice to Anne about how to outshine Desiree (“Wear your hair down with a flower/Don’t use makeup/Dress in white/She’ll grow older by the hour/And be hopelessly shattered by Saturday night”)? And the unique juxtaposition of “Now” “Soon” and “Later,” only to hear them come together in a trio? Which reminds me: there’s an unusual bonus on the original cast album at the point when Anne (Victoria Mallory) and Henrik (Mark Lambert) sing the line “I don’t mind it too much.” Their voices so perfectly mesh that her soprano sounds like an overtone of his tenor (In fact the actors married during the run of the show and their daughter played Anne in the recent revival starring Catherine Zeta-Jones).

The original Broadway cast album still makes the best case for the show. The recording of the revival has its merits—Catherine Zeta-Jones, Angela Lansbury and the lieder singers are excellent–but the orchestrations, therefore the sound, is leaner, making it “less than” from a musical standpoint And by all means avoid the movie version, which changed the locale from Sweden to turn of the century Vienna and ends up laying the proverbial egg (Diana Rigg is a great Charlotte, but it’s just not worth the agony).

So while Hans Christian Anderson may never be risqué, “A Little Night Music” will always delight.