A Weekend in the Country With Eros and Thanatos
The night itself is said to smile at the escapades of the addled lovers in “A Little Night Music,” Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s erotic waltz of a show from 1973. But the expression that hovers overTrevor Nunn’s revival, which opened Sunday night at the Walter Kerr Theater, feels dangerously close to a smirk.
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
It is a smirk shrouded in shadows. An elegiac darkness infuses this production, which stars Catherine Zeta-Jones, in a lively Broadway debut, and the indomitable (and invaluable) Angela Lansbury. But the behavior of the characters who wander through a twilight labyrinth of passion in early-20th-century Sweden has the exaggerated gusto of second-tier boulevard farce, of people trying a little too hard for worldliness.
The possibility of its affect turning from that of a feathery tickle to a nudge in the ribs has always been present in “A Little Night Music,” which charts a tangled web of romances centered on the ravishing actress Desirée Armfeldt (Ms. Zeta-Jones). Adapted from the Ingmar Bergman movie “Smiles of a Summer Night” (1955), Mr. Wheeler’s book has always had a coarse side at odds with the intricacy and delicacy of Mr. Sondheim’s score, which sets a deep-blue wistfulness to three-quarter time.
Yet when the original production opened, directed byHarold Prince, the perception was that a fine balance had been achieved between Broadway sex appeal and Sondheim cerebralism, with Mr. Wheeler (and Mr. Prince) playing Ginger Rogers to the composer’s Fred Astaire. “Good God! — an adult musical!” wrote Clive Barnes, the critic for The New York Times, who had never been a Sondheim champion but who found the show “heady, civilized, sophisticated and enchanting.” The production, which starred Glynis Johns as Desirée, ran for 601 performances, making it one of the few Sondheim shows to become a fat, popular hit. (It even had a breakout pop song, “Send In the Clowns.”)
Mr. Nunn’s “Little Night Music,” the first full Broadway revival of the show, may well be a hit too, though not because of any artistic finesse. It has what is a producer’s favorite form of insurance these days: stars known to the public from movies, television and tabloids, of whom people can later say things like “She’s even more beautiful in person” (as they surely will of the lustrous Ms. Zeta-Jones) or “She’s amazing for her age” (in reference to the 84-year-old Ms. Lansbury).
In addition to being drop-dead gorgeous in David Farley’s wasp-waisted period dresses, Ms. Zeta-Jones brings a decent voice, a supple dancer’s body and a vulpine self-possession to her first appearance on Broadway. This Welsh-born Hollywood actress appeared in West End musicals in her youth and won an Oscar for the film of the musical “Chicago,” as the man-killing chorine Velma Kelly. Her Desirée, to be honest, is much like her Velma: earthy, eager and a tad vulgar, though without the homicidal rage and jealousy. (Imagine Velma after a regimen of antidepressants.)
Such traits lend a not always appropriate edge of desperation to the droll Desirée, who has tired of touring and longs to be reunited with her former (now married) lover, Fredrik Egerman (Alexander Hanson). Ms. Zeta-Jones delivers her big ballad, “Send In the Clowns,” with an all-out emotionalism that I suppose makes sense but doesn’t jibe with the character’s amused urbanity. And swapping arch banter, sung or spoken, doesn’t come naturally to Ms. Zeta-Jones.
Though Mr. Hanson turns in a suitably suave, measured performance as the middle-aged lawyer hoping to reclaim his youth, many of the other cast members exaggerate their characters’ defining traits to the bursting point. As Anne, Fredrik’s 18-year-old, enduringly virginal bride, Ramona Mallory is all breathless fluster, squeaks and squeals. Hunter Ryan Herdlicka brings a loud, cartoonish angst to Henrik, Fredrik’s dour, censorious son.
Aaron Lazar is refreshingly understated, if not terribly memorable, as Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, the swaggering dragoon who is having an affair with Desirée. It is at least a novelty to have the role of his much put-upon wife, the Countess, played (by Erin Davie) as a teary hysteric instead of a dispenser of withering witticisms. (For the record, Ms. Davie and Ms. Mallory turn down the histrionics for an appealing performance of the bewitchingly bitter duet “Every Day a Little Death.”)
Leigh Ann Larkin, as the earthy maid Petra, oversells the 11 o’clock number “The Miller’s Son,” a hymn to sex as a life force, with autoerotic gestures that suggest an audition for a pole-dancing position. And almost everyone has an unfortunate penchant for the kind of artificial, neck-elongating laughter associated with bad drawing-room comedy. (As Desirée’s mother, the courtesan Madame Armfeldt, Ms. Lansbury is quite delicious, so I am saving her for dessert.)
This production was incubated at the tiny and prodigiously fertile Menier Chocolate Factory in London, with a cast that included Mr. Hanson. The Menier was also the birthing place for a splendid revival of Mr. Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park With George” (which transferred to the West End and, last year, to Broadway) and for the Broadway-bound “Cage Aux Folles.” Inventive use of limited means is the Menier’s signature, so it should come as no surprise that this “Night Music” is sparing on furniture and heavy on shadows, though the original is remembered for its visual lushness.
Mr. Farley’s set, dominated by walls paneled in clouded glass, and Hartley T A Kemp’s crepuscular lighting evoke a world perpetually in the gloaming, a past remembered, fondly and regretfully, through a haze. And with a scaled-down orchestra at lugubriously slowed-down tempos, Mr. Sondheim’s score more than ever suggests — and not always desirably — echoes from a distant era. (The show is punctuated by the choral commentary of five lieder singers, who are always asking, “Remember, darling?”)
Even if it deprives us of a knock-’em-dead rendition of the great first-act finale number, “A Weekend in the Country,” this somber, less-is-more approach could be effective were the ensemble plugged into the same rueful sensibility. But there is only one moment in this production when all its elements cohere perfectly.
That moment, halfway through the first act, belongs to Ms. Lansbury, who has hitherto been perfectly entertaining, playing Madame Armfeldt with the overripe aristocratic condescension of a Lady Bracknell. Then comes her one solo, “Liaisons,” in which her character thinks back on the art of love as a profession in a gilded age, when sex “was but a pleasurable means to a measurable end.”
Her face, with its glamour-gorgon makeup, softens, as Madame Armfeldt seems to melt into memory itself, and the wan stage light briefly appears to borrow radiance from her. It’s a lovely example of the past reaching out to the present, and vice versa, enriched of course by our own knowledge of Ms. Lansbury’s storied past as an actress.
“Where’s discretion of the heart, where’s passion in the art, where’s craft?” Madame Armfeldt sings in lamentation. Looking at the production she appears in, I’d say she has a point. On the other hand, looking at Ms. Lansbury just then, I would say that those virtues still have their avatar in an actress who survived six decades in show business without losing either the craft or passion in her art.
A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; book by Hugh Wheeler, suggested by a film byIngmar Bergman; originally produced and directed on Broadway by Harold Prince; directed by Trevor Nunn; choreography by Lynne Page; music supervision by Caroline Humphris; sets and costumes by David Farley; lighting by Hartley T A Kemp; sound by Dan Moses Schreier and Gareth Owen; wig and hair design by Paul Huntley; makeup design by Angelina Avallone; production stage manager, Ira Mont; associate director, Seth Sklar-Heyn; associate choreographer, Scott Taylor; music direction by Tom Murray; orchestrations by Jason Carr; music coordinator, John Miller; general manager, Frankel Green Theatrical Management; technical supervision by Aurora Productions; associate producers, Broadway Across America, Dan Frishwasser, Jam Theatricals and Richard Winkler. Presented by Tom Viertel, Steven Baruch, Marc Routh, Richard Frankel, the Menier Chocolate Factory, Roger Berlind, David Babani, Sonia Friedman Productions, Andrew Fell, Daryl Roth/Jane Bergère, Harvey Weinstein/Raise the Roof 3, Beverly Bartner/Dancap Productions Inc., Nica Burns/Max Weitzenhoffer, Eric Falkenstein/Anna Czekaj, Jerry Frankel/Ronald Frankel and James D. Stern/Douglas L. Meyer. At the Walter Kerr Theater, 219 West 48th Street, Manhattan; (212) 239-6200. Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes.
WITH: Catherine Zeta-Jones (Desirée Armfeldt), Angela Lansbury (Madame Armfeldt), Alexander Hanson (Fredrik Egerman), Erin Davie (Countess Charlotte Malcolm), Leigh Ann Larkin (Petra), Hunter Ryan Herdlicka (Henrik Egerman), Ramona Mallory (Anne Egerman) and Aaron Lazar (Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm)