Elaine Stritch and Bernadette Peters
in A Little Night Music
(© Joan Marcus)
Elaine Stritch and Bernadette Peters
in A Little Night Music
(© Joan Marcus)
Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch, have now replaced Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury, respectively, in Trevor Nunn's boutique revival of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's A Little Night Music at the Walter Kerr Theatre, and the results are simply stunning. These veteran actresses are giving the kind of extraordinary performances that should ensure audiences will take a first -- or second or third -- look at this undisputed classic musical comedy.

Peters, absent from the Broadway stage since the 2003 Gypsy revival, makes a triumphal return as Desiree Armfeldt, the actress wearying of playing Ibsen on the road. She brilliantly shows the signs of that gathering tedium -- just as she conveys Desiree's ironic view of everyone with whom she comes in contact, including herself.

With only a partially dimmed glint in her eye, she sees the human comedy played around her so consistently that her entire performance becomes a build-up to Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns." Indeed, the honesty with which she delivers the witty threnody is guaranteed to break audience's hearts just as clearly as Desiree's is breaking.

Stritch may be confined to a wheelchair as Desiree's haughty, former courtesan mother, Madame Armfeldt, but nothing can confine the star's talent for taking a laugh line and phrasing it to reap two, three, four hefty guffaws.Moreover, having declared many times in her career that Sondheim's works are three-act plays, Stritch demonstrates that contention with her version of "Liaisons." Articulating the very word "liaisons" -- as Madame Armfeldt grows increasingly furious at their having been cheapened -- Stritch gives a lesson in elaborating on the pith of a lyric without altering it.

While the supporting players have remained intact since the show's opening, the good news is that the stronger of them are just as fine as they were when they show opened, while the weaker of them have dramatically improved. Alexander Hanson is foolishly suave as Desiree's ex-lover and current suitor, Fredrik Egerman; the sensationally sounding Aaron Lazar as her younger lover, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, is ludicrously thoughtless of his barely tolerant wife, Charlotte; and Leigh Ann Larkin is as playfully libidinous as knowing servant Petra.

Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, whose voice is akin to a heavenly trumpet, has progressed from a callow turn as the young and feckless cello-sawing Henrik Egerman to playing Henrik as amusingly callow; Erin Davie, formerly adequate as Charlotte, now has sting in every disillusioned speech she utters; and Ramona Mallory, unappealingly hysterical before, is now confused and eventually bruised as Fredrik's innocent young wife, Anne. Moreover, she looks enough like Peters to make it seem as if Frederik has married someone who reminds him unconsciously of Desiree.

Also on hand are Stephen R. Buntrock, Jayne Paterson, Kevin David Thomas, Betsy Morgan, and Sara Jean Ford as the soigne quintet constantly commenting on the vagaries of human connection -- and adding to the delight of this ear-pleasing enterprise.