There's a wonderful actress in "A Little Night Music." Accustomed to the lime light, this grande dame hides her bittersweet awareness of the encroaching years under an unflappable authority. She may be looking back on her youth, but this professional seducer can still wrap men -- and pretty much everybody -- around her little finger.
Desirée Armfeldt is the theater star at the center of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's 1973 show, which laces together amorous permutations across generations and social classes at the turn of the last century.
Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Desirée in the revival that opened last night, but it's not her I'm talking about -- it's Angela Lansbury.
As Madame Armfeldt (Desirée's mother), Lansbury's even better -- if a tad too broadly comic -- than in "Blithe Spirit," and it's a treat to hear her sing on Broadway for the first time since a short-lived "Mame" in 1983. Her "Liaisons" is a marvel of resourceful, inventive interpretation, lyric manglings be damned.
But Madame Armfeldt is merely a supporting character. The star here is Zeta-Jones. She's radiant, yet doesn't shed much light on Desirée.
Zeta-Jones is one of the few movie stars these days with golden-age Hollywood charisma. She's not a technical actress but a suggestive, slightly vulgar sensualist, like Ava Gardner.
This is perfect for Desirée, who traffics in desire, but the character has more than one side. When she lets down her guard on the heartbreaking "Send in the Clowns," the fracture is unexpected here: Until then, we had no idea there were cracks under Zeta-Jones' breezy demeanor.
But then Trevor Nunn's murky-looking production (did he and lighting designer Hartley T A Kemp take the "night" in the title literally?) isn't particularly subtle or graceful.
Lacking both nuance and energy, it struggles to match the sophistication and gamesmanship of Sondheim's score, which evokes the effervescence of love, the abject pain it can cause, and the melancholy of its aftermath -- sometimes all in the same song.
A few of the actors do find grace notes. As Fredrik Egerman, a lawyer who wants Desirée even though he's married to an 18-year-old, Alexander Hanson (from the production's original London cast) gains in confidence and depth as he goes along.
Ramona Mallory plays Fredrik's child bride with petulant impetuousness, and joins Erin Davie (Countess Charlotte Malcolm) for a vibrant rendering of the ode to resigned disillusion that is "Every Day a Little Death." It really makes you long for the show that could have been.
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 over Trevor Nunn’s revival, which opened Sunday night at the Walter Kerr Theater, feels dangerously close to a smirk.
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 by Harold 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.
It has been enough of a gift having Angela Lansbury back on Broadway in recent seasons. But it's particular cause for celebration that she is appearing, for the first time in more than 25 years, in a musical. And not just any musical — a work by Stephen Sondheim, with whom she has already made magic more than once.
Lansbury created roles in two Sondheim shows, the short-lived cult classic Anyone Can Whistle (undone by a messy libretto) and the enduring masterpiece Sweeney Todd. Now, at 84, she is gloriously reviving the part of Madame Armfeldt in director Trevor Nunn's new production of A Little Night Music (* * * out of four), which opened Sunday at the Walter Kerr Theatre.
Based on the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night, with a book by Hugh Wheeler, Night follows the escapades of assorted couples and interlopers who end up gathering at Madame Armfeldt's country house in Sweden. Infidelities are confronted, and sometimes inconvenient attractions are explored. All ends well, but not before the revelers ponder such non-frivolous matters as mortality and love's challenges and indignities.
Madame Armfeldt has aged beyond the latter concerns but enjoys reflecting on her experience, which by her account is colorful and vast. She acts as a wry observer of her younger visitors' follies, and Lansbury, in an incandescent performance, lets us savor her haughty wit and see the fading but still defiant life force behind it.
But Lansbury's is not the only marquee name in this production, or even the biggest. Catherine Zeta-Jones is cast as Night's true female lead, Madame Armfeldt's daughter Desiree, an actress facing middle age. The character is often played by older and less robustly sensual women; Zeta-Jones brings great warmth and vitality to the role and makes it easier to see why Desiree's old lover, Fredrik — the male lead, played with suave brio by Alexander Hanson — would vie with a blustering dragoon for her affections.
Zeta-Jones is less effective, though, at suggesting Desiree's weary, rueful edges. Her throaty laughter seems almost too emphatic at times, as does her singing, whether she's showing her claws in You Must Meet My Wife or acknowledging defeat in Send in the Clowns.
This might owe something to Nunn's direction, as other performances here flirt with overzealousness. Ramona Mallory is particularly shrill as Anne, Fredrik's post-pubescent second wife. To be fair, Music demands a capacity for both broad comedy and pathos, and the director and cast mine and juggle these qualities rigorously and, for the most part, skillfully.
None of them, of course, blend wit and poignancy better than Lansbury — or Sondheim's score, for that matter. They are, without question, the two best reasons to see this revival.