Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Little Night Music

I kept wishing someone would send in the clowns. Anything to relieve the boredom of this first Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's 1973 musical A Little Night Music, which is directed by Trevor Nunn and playing at the Walter Kerr Theatre.

The one bright spot, and it is a shining one, is Angela Lansbury’s performance as Madame Armfeldt, an elderly woman whose practical approach to sex -- “a pleasurable means to a measurable end” -- has left her wealthy and satisfied with her life, as she explains so delightfully in the song “Liaisons.”

Unfortunately, the show’s other big star, Catherine Zeta-Jones in her Broadway debut, gives a weak performance as Madame Armfeldt’s glamorous actress daughter, DesirĂ©e, who approaches relationships more as momentary flings. Zeta-Jones’s voice is pleasant enough for a chorus, but not for a starring role, and she lacks stage presence in her movement and her timing. (She won an Oscar for the film version of Chicago.)

Unlike many Hollywood actors who decide to try Broadway with little or no theatre experience, Zeta-Jones began her career in musical theatre at 9 appearing in Annie in London and performed during her teen years in choruses in the West End, but it’s been a long time since she was on stage and it shows. It’s especially apparent with her interpretation of what is probably Sondheim’s most famous song, “Send In the Clowns.” In this scene she realizes that her former lover, Fredrik Egerman (Alexander Hanson), who had pined for her for years, has moved on just at the time, in middle-age, when she wants to commit to him. It’s a song of regret about two people who have missed each other -- “me here at last on the ground, you in midair” -- but she sounds so indifferent she might as well be reading a grocery list.

The comic roles do relieve the three-hour-long tediousness, a bit. Ramona Mallory is funny as Anne, Fredrik’s 18-year-old wife of 11 months who is still a virgin, as is Leigh Ann Larkin as Petra, the Egermans’ maid. She does a most commendable job with Sondheim’s wordy challenge of a song, “The Miller’s Son,” about her ideas on sex and finding a mate.

Set in early 20th century Sweden, A Little Night Music is adapted from the 1955 Ingmar Bergman film "Smiles of a Summer Night." This Broadway production is rooted in Nunn's recent acclaimed productions at London's Menier Chocolate Factory and in the West End.

The cast also features Aaron Lazar as Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, Erin Davie as Countess Charlotte Malcolm and Hunter Ryan Herdlicka as Henrik Egerman, with Stephen R. Buntrock, Bradley Dean, Katherine Leigh Doherty, Marissa McGowan, Betsy Morgan, Jayne Paterson, Kevin David Thomas, Keaton Whittaker, Karen Murphy, Erin Stewart and Kevin Vortmann in the ensemble.

David Farley has designed lovely period costumes and a stark set that, along with Hartley T A Kemp’s lighting, conveys the somber, shadowy feeling of a play in which the past haunts most of the adult characters. Jason Carr provides orchestrations and Tom Murray musical direction.

The original production, which featured Glynis Johns as Desiree, Len Cariou as Fredrik and Hermione Gingold as Madame Armfeldt, was directed by Harold Prince and won five 1973 Tony Awards, including the one for Best Musical.

Tickets for the current production are available at the box office, 219 W. 48th St., or through Telecharge -- (212) 239-6200.

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