A Little Night Music -- Theater Review

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The current Broadway revival of "A Little Night Music" has gotten a whole lot brighter, and it has nothing to do with the lighting.

When it opened in December, there were raves for the three leads -- Catherine Zeta-Jones, Angela Lansbury and Alexander Hanson -- but much criticism, including mine, of director Trevor Nunn's minimalist approach, which included visually drab sets, monochromatic costumes and dim lighting design.

Well, the production elements remain the same, but the two lead replacements, Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch, have enlivened the proceedings immeasurably. What before was an undeniably moving experience has now become even richer, filled with a humor that too often was lacking in its first incarnation.

Peters and Stritch are beloved Broadway icons, and their performances here illustrate the reasons why. Peters infuses her turn as the glamorous actress Desiree Armfeldt with a warmth and charm that radiate over the footlights. She nails the dramatic and comedic aspects of the role with the sort of effortless grace that comes from decades of experience.

The primary difference between her and her predecessor is that Peters also displays an aching vulnerability that the younger, stunningly beautiful Zeta-Jones couldn't quite convey. We thus become much more emotionally invested in her character's desire to reconnect with her former lover Fredrik Egerman (Hanson), the middle-aged lawyer trapped in an unhappy, sexless marriage to a child bride (Ramona Mallory).

And she sings beautifully; her superb rendition of the classic if overly familiar "Send in the Clowns" garners a huge and well-deserved ovation.
Stritch, too, manages to bring shadings to her role that eluded even the great Lansbury. When her casting as the acerbic, infirm Madame Armfeldt was announced, there were those who feared that she would fall back on her trademark comic shtick. But though her turn does indeed generate huge laughs, they are well earned and strictly in character. Although her character is confined to a wheelchair and virtually immobile, Stritch seems more fully alive than almost everyone else onstage. And even at 84, she nails her one big number, "Liaisons," with the sort of show-stopping bravura that marked her classic "The Ladies Who Lunch."

The supporting cast remains the same, but eight months into the run, they have hit the sweet spot in their performances. Hanson, who was superb at the beginning, remains so. But Mallory, Aaron Lazar, Erin Davie, Leigh Ann Larkin and Hunter Ryan Herdlicka have gotten better, infusing their turns with a previously unmined humor.

"Night Music" originally was announced to close upon the departure of the original female leads. But with their brilliant recasting, the show's producers have managed to infuse it with extraordinary new life.

Venue: Walter Kerr Theatre, New York (Runs indefinitely)
Cast: Bernadette Peters, Elaine Stritch, Alexander Hanson, Aaron Lazar, Erin Davie, Leigh Ann Larkin, Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, Ramona Mallory
Music and lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: Hugh Wheeler
Director: Trevor Nunn
Choreographer: Lynne Page
Set and costume designer: David Farley
Lighting designer: Hartley T.A. Kemp
Sound designer: Dan Moses Schreier, Gareth Owen
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