A starry constellation has gathered at the Walter Kerr Theatre, where Sondheim’s A Little Night Music is in performances by a cast of names that vary in the warmth of their glow. Illuminating the theater in a production of Sondheim’s lovely, lush musical, these fine actors and actresses bring a soft-hearted, sympathetic life to characters that sometimes don’t seem that likeable.
Directed by Trevor Nunn, a Brit well-known for his large, lavish productions of shows like Les Miserables and Cats, A Little Night Music , whose score welcomes a grandiose production, is instead scaled down. Based on the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night, and adapted into a musical by Stephen Sondheim, the show is traditionally performed by a full-scale orchestra. It is instead presented as a chamber piece with nine musicians credited in the Playbill. While this may sound unappealing to fans of the original production, the decision benefits the production, allowing more focus to be devoted to the lyrics, which are clever, witty and elicit countless laughs from the audience.
The story centers around Desiree, a traveling actress and single mother whose precocious daughter Fredericka (played by the remarkably posed Katherine Leigh Doherty) is raised by her grandmother (a deliciously salty Angela Lansbury, a queen ruling from her wheelchair and surrounded by lace ruffles and pearl buttons). When reunited with her former lover Frederick (Alexander Hanson), a lawyer unhappily married to his (still) virginal bride Anne, Desiree begins to reconsider her choice of the “glamorous life” and concocts a scheme to make Frederick her own. Wives and other lovers (his and hers) be damned.
These other lovers do twist the plot, as Desiree’s brutally jealous lover Count Carl-Magnus, played in a regally obnoxious, yet still thoughtful and amusing manner by Aaron Lazar, infuses himself into Desiree’s plot, along with his wife, the stately Erin Davie. Davie is excellent as the long-suffering Charlotte, managing to combine her stiff defenses with a quivering vulnerability. Her duet with Anne about the pain of infidelity, “Every Day A Little Death” is hauntingly sad and funny. Of course it is; it’s by Sondheim. Anne, played by Ramona Mallory, is a flighty wisp of curly hair and creamy skin. At times she is cloying instead of endearing, but she is always petulant and extremely pretty.
And then, of course there is the grand dame Angela Lansbury, playing Mme. Armfeldt, the former courtesan and Desiree’s disapproving mother. Ruling the roost from her wheelchair, she dispenses pearls of wisdom and laments the sorry state of affairs that love has become. When she was the lover of royal men, she sings in “Liasons,” sex was “but a pleasurable means to a measurable end.” But Lansbury, ever the triumphant actress in any role, infuses her solo number with both disapproval and celebration, as she recalls her days as the queen of any man’s court.
It is no surprise that Lansbury is as magnificent as ever and many members of the audience no doubt expected nothing less. It is probably Zeta-Jones who excites more curiosity as she makes her Broadway debut in one of the more famous roles in musical theater cannon, singing one of the most famous songs in modern culture. Zeta-Jones, who performed onstage in the West End before establishing herself as a leading lady in Hollywood, tackles the role of Desiree by giving her an earthy sensuality and a supremely sarcastic point of view. This Desiree is a woman with an arch point of view and seems to always have one eyebrow in skepticism – or is it flirtation? Watching her and Frederick interact, one can imagine how much fun they had together as young lovers, and, witnessing Hanson’s portrayal of Frederick, one can understand why she would want him back.
Sadly, the same cannot be said of some members of the supporting cast. As Frederick’s long-suffering, puritanical son Henrik, Hunter Ryan Herdlicka provides some moments of humor but does not depict the conviction needed to make Henrik an actual character instead of a caricature. As Petra, the sexually assertive maid, Leigh Ann Larkin, is far too assertive. Her performance of “The Miller’s Son,” a celebration of living life in the present and enjoying earthly delights, feels overdone and hyperactive in comparison with the understated numbers sung before her.
Understatement was also kept in mind when designing the set, which consists of a circle of rotating panels that serve as mirrors, walls of homes or trees in the country where the majority of the third act takes place. The principle of simplicity is also applied to the costumes, which are all tones of black, gray or off-white.
Shades of gray fill the consciences of these characters, as well as their wardrobes, especially when it comes to issues of monogamy fidelity. Being unfaithful seems not uncommon to these people, and, as likable as they are made by the actors depicting them, it is difficult not to wonder how a young woman could elope with her stepson while still legally married to her father without batting an eye, or how a man could lament to his wife that his mistress might have another lover. The question does not seem to linger in any of their minds, and it is difficult to dwell while watching this fine play. News of affairs seem to be common knowledge to our culture, covering every celebrity magazine these days and filling hours of ESPN, but a slightly bitter question or two lingers after the curtain falls.
While the show features numerous jokes, at the expense of both sexes, it also reveals some moments of true sadness. As the chorus states, “perpetual anticipation is good for the heart but bad for the soul.” While watching this group of unhappy adults battle for their lovers, anxiously awaiting the next opportunity, one can’t help but wonder when they will stop anticipating and start existing. Zeta-Jones’ quiet, almost haunting rendition of “Send in the Clowns” echoes this sentiment, as she manages to depict pain, heartache and steely defense, all while sitting motionless on a bed.
The swift staging of the show does not lose any of this emotion within its movement, especially the opening and closing numbers where the entire cast enters and leaves the stage while waltzing. In the beginning, the mood uncertain and a bit eerie, they repeatedly change partners, attempting to figure out who it is they are best paired with. But by the end, it is obvious that they know.