New York City Theater
"A Little Night Music"
Walter Kerr Theater, (Broadway)
“A Little Night Music,” now in revival on Broadway, reminds one of how much composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim has changed the face of contemporary musical theater. The show opens quietly on a darkened stage, a lone cellist mournfully picking out a tune. The scene gradually lightens as each dancer enters and whirls on stage. In contrast, “Oklahoma” and those of its ilk would have opened with a bouncing, raucous chorus number.
Thus the mood is set for “A Little Night Music”—a bittersweet tale of regrets, rueful memories, and longings. Director Trevor Nunn is clearly in tune with these visions, bringing the musical to life with a masterly hand.
Though based on Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” “Night Music” is not what one expects of Bergman. In contrast to his usual work, the piece is light, amusing, sexually-driven, and thoroughly European. Yet the darkness menaces, like moments in a summer storm.
Specifically, the middle-aged
actress Desiree has returned home between engagements. She is known for her
interpretation of Ibsen heroines. She runs into her former lover Fredrik and is
determined to win him back, though he is married to child-bride Anne. Desiree’s
present lover (the Count) is furious when he finds Frederick in Desiree’s boudoir. At the same
time Fredrik’s son Henrik is desperately in love with Anne. Even the maid Petra carries on with her
own peccadillos. Desiree’s mother Madame Armfeldt presides over it all with a
jaundiced eye, as she recalls her own liaisons. And on and on. So the values of a 19th-century
European culture are spelled out.
The unexpected and dazzling surprise is film star Catherine Zeta-Jones in the lead, thus proving that some performers can make the transition from one media to another. For starters, Zeta-Jones is simply gorgeous in face and figure, deliciously displayed in David Farley’s period costumes. No need to get the right camera angle, as she moves about the stage. But, more importantly, she takes command of the role, combining Desiree’s earthiness with wit, poise, and high style. When she delivers the most famous of Sondheim tunes--"Bring in the Clowns"--she makes the piece her own . She is well matched with Alexander Hanson as Fredrik, whose comic skills mix with his sexy appeal.
The other big name is Angela Lansbury, who plays Madame Armfeldt. Is Lansbury really this old or is it pretense? In any event, Lansbury no long sings, but recites her songs as she views proceedings from her wheelchair. No matter. That this much-revered trouper is here at all is enough to delight the audience.
It is a first-class cast all around, as it glides smoothly through the scenes, with the exception of the two ingenues. Hunter Ryan Herklicka and Ramona Mallory, playing Henrik and Anne, are quite out of control, as they hysterically deliver lines. Why didn’t the director rein them in? David Farley’s mirrored set design is also a disappointment. It feels more like a portable set serving a road tour, ready to be folded up and opened at the next venue.
But these are minor quibbles, given the over-all experience that Zeta-Jones and company offers. A show worthy of Broadway, Sondheim, Bergman and all.
-- Irene Backalenick
Jan. 31, 2009