Elizabeth Taylor's voice never quite grew up. Although Taylor managed to cultivate some raspy, bitchy sounds in a few pictures - notably "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" - the basic vocal instrument has remained thin and girlish. Now that her physique has grown corpulent, it's a shock to hear such a tiny voice coming out.
The movie version of "A Little Night Music," now at the Tenley Circle 2, never recovers from the first disillusioning close-up of Taylor laboring to lift her voice in song. It sets a pattern of incongruity and miscalculation that director Harold Prince has been unwary enought to sustain througout the entire enterprise. Take your pick of the least astute and rewarding film musicals of recent years: "New York, New York", "The Blue Bird" "At Long Last Love," 'Lost Horizon," Song of Norway." Whatever your choice, "A Little Night Music" underachieves them all.
Never a rouser, "A Little Night Music" virtually petrifies on screen. Why was Taylor selected for the lead in the first place? It's been some time since she generated either kinetic or box-office excitement. The role of Desiree Armfeldt, a turn-of-the-century theatrical star who adroitly sets a romantic trap for her ex-lover (a complacent attorney waiting to consummate his marriage to an ingenue) requires humor and animation along with beauty.
Evan Dahlbeck unified the necessary attributes when she originated the role in Ingmar Bergman's "Smiles of a Summer Night," the most elegant and satisfying bedroom farce ever written for the movies. Taylor projects neither sexual cunning nor sexual authority. In repose, she resembles a figurehead on the prow of a ship. When she smiles, she looks anxious and a little pitiful, like a pretty but overweight adolescent girl. It defies belief when Diana Rigg and Lesley-Anne Down, both in terrific shape, must pretend to be jealous of Taylor's character.
Len Cariou, a holdover as the lawyer from Prince's original Broadway production of the show, is not exactly scintillating screen company either. Indeed, the only thing flatter than his personality is his hairpiece. The second male lead, Laurence Guittard, also a transplant from the original show, suggests a slightly taller clone of Cariou.
Judging from his casting selections, Prince hasn't the faintest notion of cinematic sexual chemistry. Seven years elapsed between his first feature, "Something for Everyone", a precious flop of 1970, and "A Little Night Music." He had a lighter touch seven years ago. Obviously denied the opportunity to perfect a film technique, Prince may have aggravated his problems by relying on Arthur Ibbetson, the least dynamic major cinematographer in the business. Even if the casting and staging had been admirable, the movie might never have survived Ibbetson's lifeless compositions, characteristically overlit and starved for graphic energy and variety.
Since Taylor is entrusted with the one remotely appealing and melodious song in Stephen Sondheim's maddeningly sophisticated score - "Send in the Clowns" - even the show's ace in the hole gets misplayed. After enduring all those tricky lyrics and miserly tunes, what is there to look forward to?. A big number destined to roll over and play dead.
The musical collaborations of Prince and Sondheim reveal a lack of a romantic sensibility that strikes me as a severe lyric deficiency indeed. They may not be so much the saviors of the Broadway musical as its most skillful coroners or morticians. The movie version of "A Little Night Music" is about as lyrically undernourished as a musical can get.