Sunday, August 1, 2010

A Little Night Music

It was all over. At least it seemed to be. The producers of “A Little Night Music” announced that the Broadway revival would end its run in mid-June when Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury’s contracts expired.

But the gods of musical theater smiled upon us and offered a last-minute reprieve: Elaine Stritch and Bernadette Peters, both divas known for appearing in Stephen Sondheim musicals, would take over the roles of Madame Armfeldt and her daughter Desiree.

Sondheim’s waltz musical elegantly mixes passionate romantic longing with bittersweet regret. Based on Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” it observes the silly games played by several couples trying to break in and out of their relationships in turn-of-the-century Sweden.

In spite of her painfully horrific rendition of “Send in the Clowns” on the Tony Awards, Zeta-Jones was not bad as Desiree, the middle-aged actress who now clings to the hope of settling down with her former beau Fredrik Egerman. She looked absolutely gorgeous and displayed a strong singing voice.

In comparison, Peters completely masters the role in all its emotional complexity. She nails every laugh with her baby doll persona, and her teary performance of “Send in the Clowns” is truly heartbreaking. Peters isn’t just playing Desiree – she is Desiree.

Elaine Stritch, as the wheelchair-bound former courtesan Madame Armfeldt, practically defines what it means to be a hot mess. While her line readings are often irritatingly slow, she is comically authoritative and refreshingly unpredictable. Stritch also brings a surprising vulnerability to the role.

Trevor Nunn’s scaled-down production looks visually exquisite, but the lighting is too dim, the pacing is too slow and the orchestra is too reduced. But with Peters and Stritch joining a strong supporting cast, Sondheim’s romantic musical continues to ring out with divinity. Now send in the audience!

“A Little Night Music” plays at the Walter Kerr Theatre.
219 W. 48th St., 212-239-6200, nightmusiconbroadway.com. Open run.

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