New York City Theater
"A Little Night Music"
Walter Kerr Theater
Weather report for “A Little Night Music”: Gloom, followed by patches of sunshine. Director Trevor Nunn’s version of one of composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s masterpieces is full of mystery and blackness in Act One, edging into openness and lightness in Act Two. It’s an approach that could work if it hadn’t resulted in a glacially-paced evening saved by some sterling performances and a sumptuous score.
Summer and winter, life and death play off one another. Nunn, however, goes for a withering away of life and love without coming out the other side. Although the rueful “Send in the Clowns” is its most famous number, the show’s other songs also reinforce its air of paradox. “The Sun Won’t Set” is an ironic grin at unending Scandinavian daylight that yearns for the relief of dusk (“Perpetual sunset is rather an unsettling thing”). In “It Would Have Been Wonderful,” the subjunctive “would” tells all. Against this, Nunn pitches his actors through the roof. Instead of blending with the subtleties and wit of Sondheim’s score and Hugh Wheeler’s libretto, the evening, uncertain of tone, can’t settle anyplace in particular.
Although the sensuous story is ostensibly about flirtations, infidelities and wrong-headed marriages, “Music,” like much of Sondheim, flirts with mortality. Take “Every Day a Little Death,” in which betrayed wife Charlotte sings “Every day a little death / In the parlor, in the bed . . . Every day a little sting / In the heart and in the head.”
Based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film, “Smiles of a Summer Night,” the title is explained by reigning dowager Madame Armfeldt. “The summer night smiles,” she says, first at the young “who know nothing, the second at fools who know too little . . . and the third at the old who know too much.”
Since this bit of pithy generational advice is delivered by no less a luminary than Angela Lansbury, it has bite and conviction. Staying above the fray and looking on with a jaundiced, tipsy eye, Lansbury is in her own orbit, another indication that the evening doesn’t quite jell.
Catherine Zeta-Jones makes an impressive Broadway debut as the world-weary, fun-loving, wise-to-everyone, self-absorbed, self-aware Desirée, Armfeldt’s daughter. Looking smashing in David Farley’s gorgeous costumes, Zeta-Jones reaches her apogee in “Send in the Clowns,” imbuing that classic with sadness and acceptance. As her onetime lover, Alexander Hanson is sophisticated and attractive, a perfect, understanding companion to Zeta-Jones.
Others don’t fare as well, although Aaron Lazar is amusing as the pompous Carl-Magnus and Erin Davie puts a fresh spin of resignation on Charlotte. Much less successful is Leigh Ann Larkin who attacks her big number, “The Miller’s Son” with the vulgar ferocity that would have been more at home in her most recent (and more felicitous) outing, the burlesque houses of “Gypsy.”
Farley’s ungainly set looks like a series of closets, while Hartley T A Kemp’s lighting gains in effectiveness as it gains in wattage. This is a revival that looks cramped and crimped but, then, there’s Zeta-Jones and Lansbury and Hanson and, oh, that enchanting, triumphant score.
David A. Rosenberg
Jan. 10, 2010