Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - December 13, 2009
A Little Night Music Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Hugh Wheeler. Suggested by a Film by Ingmar Bergman. Originally Produced and Directed by Harold Prince. Directed by Trevor Nunn. Choreography by Lynne Page. Set and costume design by David Farley. Lighting design by Hartley T A Kemp. Sound design by Dan Moses Schreier, Gareth Owen. Wigs and hair design by Paul Huntley. Make-up design by Angelina Avallone. Orchestrations by Jason Carr. Cast: Catherine Zeta-Jones, Angela Lansbury, Alexander Hanson, Erin Davie, Leigh Ann Larkin, Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, Ramona Mallory, and Aaron Lazar, Stephen R. Buntrock, Bradley Dean, Katherine Leigh Doherty, Marissa McGowan, Betsy Morgan, Jayne Paterson, Kevin David Thomas, Keaton Whitaker, Karen Murphy, Erin Stewart, Kevin Vortmann.
Thankfully, Nunn has arranged some particularly luminous ones to turn back the cold anytime they’re onstage. Catherine Zeta-Jones, as the famed actress Desirée Armfeldt, and Angela Lansbury, as Desirée’s mother, instinctively understand and project what Nunn and most of the rest of his cast do not: This show is not a turgid, angry tragedy, but a saucy lark that’s all about celebrating, as someone sensibly sings, “everything passing by.”
In Wheeler’s book, of course, that “everything” is primarily sex, something that Desirée and her mother comprehend and utilize to the utmost. For Desirée, it’s the ultimate tool of connection, drawing her to both the loving but safe lawyer, Fredrik Egerman (Alexander Hanson), and the erotically advanced but dim-witted dragoon, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Aaron Lazar). That both are themselves married, Fredrik to the 18-year-old Anne (Ramona Mallory), still a virgin after a year of marriage, and Carl-Magnus to the suffering, brittle-wise Charlotte (Erin Davie), is hardly her concern.
For Madame Armfeldt, on the other hand, sex is a bargaining chip that’s led her to a life as a successful courtesan with some very high-profile “clients.” Now elderly and caring for her granddaughter, Fredrika (Katherine Leigh Doherty at the performance I attended; Keaton Whittaker also plays the role), she’s horrified at Desirée’s carelessness and treatment of such a crucial act as a game. But she gets dragged into matters anyway when everyone, including Fredrik’s seminary-bound son, Henrik (Hunter Ryan Herdlicka), who secretly lusts after Anne, and the Egermans’ insatiable maid, Petra (Leigh Ann Larkin), converge on her mansion one catastrophic weekend.
As the two lead women’s viewpoints serve as vital dramatic guideposts for the action, so too do their performers. Though Desirée is frequently portrayed as straight-up and stately, Zeta-Jones plays her as vivacity personified. The actress, who won an Oscar for playing Velma Kelly in the movie version of Chicago, is sturdy, yes, and possessing of a gutsy, grab-it-all mentality that’s unexpectedly a perfect match for the deceptively yearning Desirée. But if Zeta-Jones makes her seem younger and cagier than the norm, she’s also quicker to hurt - her big (and, frankly, her only) solo, “Send in the Clowns,” is darker and smokier than most renditions, but retains its power because it signals the heretofore ageless Desirée’s final, unwanted, and potentially disastrous descent into middle age.
Lansbury’s Madame Armfeldt is grand and imperious, the disapproving queen to Desirée’s pretender to the throne. Summoning up baritone intonations and cutting purrs that recall the role’s originator, Hermione Gingold, Lansbury controls the action with a firm hand and reproving voice that slices through philosophical utterances and withering quips with unsurpassed facility. Her big musical turn, “Liaisons,” is especially powerful at capturing the fading of a pillar of a more glorious era, not least because Lansbury herself represents exactly the same sort of glimmering, irreplaceable relic amid the crowds of the increasingly ordinary.
Who, come to think of it, rounds out the cast? Whereas Lansbury and Zeta-Jones land every lyric, line, and emotion, their castmates are lucky to eke out 65 percent most of the time. Hanson, who originated Fredrik in this production in London, is so stodgy and unappealing, it’s unclear why either Desirée or Anne would think twice of him. Herdlicka is consistently whiny hissy-fitty, looking (with his mop-like hair) and sounding like he should be instead touring in Spring Awakening; Mallory is shrill on her lines, uncomfortably belty in her high-reaching songs, and unconvincingly innocent.
Lazar and Davie should be in the show’s most unbreakable roles, but derive only a fraction of the characters’ laughs and musical pleasures. Note, however, that this is probably not an oversight. Lazar and Davie are two of Broadway’s most robust, legitimate singers, but are here undersinging throughout. And they’re not alone: The quintet chorus of interested onlookers is made up of similarly gifted vocalists in Stephen R. Buntrock, Jayne Paterson, Marissa McGowan, Kevin David Thomas, and Betsy Morgan, who likewise are subdued almost to the point of Sprechstimme.
One suspects that Nunn is downplaying the show’s musical values in order to amplify its intimacy, which he practically confirms by so cranking down the tempos that most of the numbers barely step livelier than hangover slurring and using an instrumental complement of eight that is utterly insufficient for conveying any of the lushness on which the show has traditionally thrived. (Jason Carr’s new orchestrations are insulting to Jonathan Tunick’s magnificently symphonic originals.) True, this does place additional emphasis on Sondheim’s lyrics, and you’ll hear every syllable in the kind of ultra-crisp diction one seldom experiences outside of productions of My Fair Lady.
But contemplation of this molasses-in-Siberia sort goes against the very spirit of A Little Night Music, which should have the buzzing velocity of fireflies and not the lumbering inefficiency of a Zamboni. Most of these people don’t consider the future and think about what they’re saying more than half a sentence ahead. Giving them the luxury of endlessly chewing over every thought and feeling transforms them from pitiably laughable fools into depressive sad sacks who willingly plunge into self-destruction. The glass-paneled walls of David Farley’s sleepy drawing-room set (Farley also did the restrained, but lovely, costumes) only further encourage reflection, which couldn’t happen in the preternatural dimness of Hartley T. A. Kemp’s lights in any event.
Fortunately, this reconfiguring of the show’s basic nature is somewhat less harmful here than was the case in Nunn’s 2002 solemnizing of Oklahoma!. It’s still possible to have a good time, because - much like their characters - Zeta-Jones and Lansbury pierce right through the nonsense of the reinterpretation to find the heart of fizzy intoxication still beating at this show’s center. A great A Little Night Music needs all its actors working toward that goal. But at least those two stars ensure that you’re smiling whenever they appear, regardless of how wintry the night outside - or surrounding them - may actually be.