A Little Night Music -- Theater Review

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As anyone who's perused the Broadway Internet chat rooms already knows, the current revival of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's "A Little Night Music" has already elicited wildly divergent reactions.
   
This is no surprise for a Sondheim show; the composer's fans, and they are legion, have always been a highly vocal lot. Trevor Nunn's chamber-music style rendition, imported here after previous runs at London's Menier Chocolate Factory and the West End, is indeed a
substantially different "Night Music" than audiences are accustomed to.
   
But whatever its flaws, it's nonetheless a welcome return of a show that has inexplicably not received a Broadway revival since the original Hal Prince production in 1973.

The marquee draw for this production, however, is not the composer but rather Catherine Zeta-Jones, making her Broadway debut as the glamorous actress Desiree Armfeldt. Add the reassuring presence of veteran Angela Lansbury (making her second Broadway appearance in as many seasons) as the acerbic Madame Armfeldt, and you pretty much have boxoffice insurance.

The musical, based on Ingmar Bergman's classic film "Smiles of a Summer Night," takes place in turn-of-the-century Sweden and concerns the complexly amorous adventures of a group of upper-class characters, culminating in a raucous summer weekend at a country estate.

Nunn's minimalist approach contrasts sharply with Prince's original opulent staging, with mixed results. There will be many who bemoan the visually drab sets (largely composed of a large shifting wall and multiple mirrors) and monochromatic costumes, which add an unnecessary level of literal darkness to the proceedings. Even more painful to endure is the reduced, mere eight-piece orchestra which, despite the undeniably skillful orchestrations, simply doesn't do sufficient justice to Sondheim's magnificent, Tony-winning score.

On the other hand, this intimate version does a wonderful job of accentuating the emotional complexities and endlessly witty dialogue of Hugh Wheeler's book, even if some of the overly broad performances by the supporting players threaten to overwhelm it.

Zeta-Jones, younger than the performers who have traditionally played the role, is captivating as Desiree. The actress has musical theater experience, and it shows; she has terrific stage presence, unlike so many movie stars who tread the boards, and she sings and
moves beautifully.

Her rendition of the oh-so-familiar "Send in the Clowns" is a revelation, and she handles the poignant and comic aspects of her character with equal aplomb. She also, as hardly comes as a surprise, looks absolutely gorgeous.

Alexander Hanson, the sole carry-over from the London productions, is superb as the  lawyer Fredrik Egerman, movingly rueful in his middle-aged laments and amusingly sex-starved as the husband of Anne (Ramona Mallory), his beautiful but virginal 18-year-old new bride.
 
Lansbury uses her well-honed theatrical instincts to perfect effect as Madame Armfeldt, generating huge laughs with her expert delivery of the character's piercing comic barbs. The strapping Aaron Lazar is highly amusing and also surprisingly touching as the pompous,
physically imposing Count whose jealousy of Fredrick threatens to become violent.

Less effective are Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, who turns Henrik, Fredrik's morose young son, into too much of a caricature; Erin Davie, whose overly morose Countess robs the character of much of her vibrantly sardonic humor; and Leigh Ann Larkin, rather too contemporary
as the lusty maid Petra.

In this version, Sondheim's brilliant score is more effective in the quieter numbers than in such normally show-stopping set pieces as the first-act closer "A Weekend in the Country," which here fails to have the desired impact.

Venue: Walter Kerr Theatre, NYC (Runs indefinitely)
Presented by: Tom Viertel, Steve Baruch, Marc Routh, Richard Frankel, the Menier Chocolate Factory, Roger Berlind, David Babani, Sonia Friedman Prods., Andrew Fell, Daryl Roth/Jane Bergiere, Harvey Weinstein/Raise the Roof 3, Beverly Bartner/Dancap Prods., Nica Burns/Max Weitzenhoffer, Eric Falkenstein/Anna Czekaj, Jerry Frankel/Ronald Frankel and James D. Stern/Douglas L. Meyer
Music and lyrics by: Stephen Sondheim
Book by: Hugh Wheeler
Cast: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Angela Lansbury, Alexander Hanson, Aaron Lazar, Erin Davie, Leigh Ann Larkin, Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, Ramona Mallory
Director: Trevor Nunn
Choreography: Lynne Page
Set and costume design: David Farley
Lighting design: Hartley T.A. Kemp
Sound design: Dan Moses Schreier, Gareth Owen
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