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A Little Night Music

Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones give standout performances in Trevor Nunn's mostly effective revival of the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical.

Angela Lansbury, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and
Kearon Whittaker in A Little Night Music
(© Joan Marcus)
In Trevor Nunn's mostly effective Broadway revival of the Tony- Award-winning Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical, A Little Night Music, now at the Walter Kerr Theatre, Catherine Zeta-Jones is even more beautiful in set-and-costume designer David Farley's Edwardian frocks and in the creamy flesh than she is on screen. Although her stage technique is still a bit rusty, and the role of frustrated actress Desiree Armfeldt is undoubtedly more complex than the song-and-dance parts she played in her earlier career, she does well by the play's pathos and wit. Wait for her to deliver the line, "And this is my daughter." And wait, especially, for "Send in the Clowns," which reduces her (and perhaps the audience) to credible tears.

The reemergence of the tuner as a chamber musical -- as first seen at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London -- is a smart notion, well realized. Something about an entire score in waltz-time introduced here by a cello solo seems entirely right as skillfully scaled down by Nunn, choreographer Lynne Page, and orchestrator Jason Carr. Farley's single-set unit -- mirrors that convert to the walls of various rooms in a town-house and a country house and then to a panorama of birches -- is sufficient, if perhaps a trifle colorless.

Fortunately, the long-Scandinavian-day frolics unfolding in front of the flexible piece amply compensate for the show's minimalist look. Adapted with admirable agility from Ingmar Bergman's far more arch and somewhat less entertaining Smiles of a Summer Night, Wheeler's perky plot -- unfortunately, not perky enough in some of the playing here -- is focused on lawyer Fredrik Egerman (the suavely baffled Alexander Hanson, the sole cast member imported from the London ensemble) and his resuscitated fascination with Desiree, whom he reencounters after 11 months of unconsummated marriage to 18-year-old Anne (Ramona Mallory, acting as if the dazed bride is more like 11 or 12).

Mooning about this trio are Fredrik's cello-playing and Martin Luther-spouting son, Henrik (Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, sounding as if his voice is about to break); Desiree's dragoon lover, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Aaron Lazar, showing off his stunning baritone and chiseled physique), the Count's barely tolerant wife Charlotte (the competent Erin Davie), who shoots figurative darts, and libidinous maid Petra (Leigh Ann Larkin, holding little back), who represents the below-stairs view of love-crazed matters.

Also in the mix, more as observers than participants, are Desiree's teenaged daughter Fredrika (adept Katherine Leigh Doherty at the performance I saw and Keaton Whittaker at other times), and Desiree's woman-of-the-world mother, Madame Armfeldt (Angela Lansbury). Confined to a wheelchair for the most part, Lansbury provides a depiction of a woman elegantly withdrawing from life that is a master class in characterization. So is her tragciomic rendition of the brilliant solo "Liaisons." Indeed, no one should be surprised if the five-time Tony winner carries off that sixth spinning medallion next year.

No matter who's playing these comic figures immersed in their self-regard and unwitting buffoonery, the evening's heroes will always be Wheeler, who improved on the Bergman screenplay, and Sondheim, who in limiting his composing to 3/4 and 6/8 time rose to the challenge with some of his most beautiful and languorous melodies and some of his most consistently exquisite lyrics, such as "The hands on the clock turn, but don't sing a nocturne just yet." As one exits A Little Night Music, the proper thing to do is sing Sondheim's praises.