A Little Night Music Review 2: Bernadette Peters, Elaine Stritch And A Remarkable Transformation
Something unexpected has happened to “A Little Night Music” since its producers decided to keep it going even after the departure of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury. It has gotten better.
Now, I liked it when it opened in December ( my review). Yes, the production was flawed – drab sets and dim lighting; skimpy orchestra; some overly-broad acting — but none of the flaws mattered when this musical, back on Broadway after 35 years, featured Stephen Sondheim’s deeply clever songs, as well as the allure and majesty of its two stars.
Bernadette Peters now plays Desiree Armfeldt, the middle-aged actress who re-connects with an old lover, in a story adapted from Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film, “Smiles of A Summer Night.” She is both witty and affecting in an understated way that is so effective it makes you think that something missing has been restored. It is shocking to realize that Peters debuted on Broadway 51 years ago; she looks too young for that to be possible. But she brings to the role all that experience on Broadway – she has appeared in more than a dozen Broadway shows, including three previous ones by Sondheim. Her rendition of “Send in The Clowns” was so touching it made me feel as if I had never understood that song before.
Elaine Stritch has taken over the role of Desiree’s mother, Madame Armfeldt, a lady in a wheelchair recalling the great lovers of her life, and the yachts and fine wine they gave her. Near the beginning of the musical, Madame tells her grandchild (Desiree’s daughter) “practice your piano, dear, preferably with the softpedal down.” It is not advice that Stritch herself takes. Her fortissimo, comic performance seems more Elaine Stritch (brassy, funny, unpredictable) than Madame Armfeldt, an elegant and haughty old courtesan, but it is sure to make many people glad to see her back on Broadway. (Her debut, 19 shows ago, was in 1946.)
Peters and Stritch are the only cast changes in the production. But much of the cast nevertheless seems to have undergone a transformation nearly as remarkable as Peters’ performance. Alexander Hanson was always good as Fredrik Egerman, Desiree’s past (and future) lover, but he seems to have relaxed into the role, and he is dashing and charming and funny in a way that I do not recall from December. The biggest surprise is Leigh Ann Larkin as the servant girl Petra, whose performance many critics cited as Exhibit A for Trevor Nunn’s overly broad, even coarse, direction. She has toned down her acting, and tuned up her singing. When near the end of the musical, she sings “The Miller’s Song,” we appreciate it all the more for its wit and pathos:
It’s a very short road/
From the pinch and the punch/
To the paunch and the pouch and the pension.
…In the meanwhile/
There are mouths to be kissed/
Before mouths to be fed,/
And a lot in between/
In the meanwhile./
And a girl ought to celebrate
“A Little Night Music” is about love but also about the passage of time – the young anticipating (fearing, longing for) the future; the old looking regretfully (and ecstatically) at the past; the middle-aged searching for a mid-course correction. How fitting, then, that the musical’s eight months at the Walter Kerr Theater have made so much difference to the musical itself, giving theatergoers even more to celebrate.
A Little Night Music
at the Walter Kerr Theater, 219 West 48th Street
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; book by Hugh Wheeler, suggested by a film by Ingmar Bergman; originally produced and directed on Broadway by Harold Prince.
Directed by Trevor Nunn
Choreography by Lynne Page; music supervision by Caroline Humphris; sets and costumes by David Farley; lighting by Hartley T A Kemp; sound by Dan Moses Schreier and Gareth Owen; wig and hair design by Paul Huntley; makeup design by Angelina Avallone; production stage manager, Ira Mont; associate director, Seth Sklar-Heyn; associate choreographer, Scott Taylor
Music direction by Tom Murray; orchestrations by Jason Carr; music coordinator, John Miller
Bernadette Peters (Desirée Armfeldt), Elaine Stritch (Madame Armfeldt), Alexander Hanson (Fredrik Egerman), Erin Davie (Countess Charlotte Malcolm), Leigh Ann Larkin (Petra), Hunter Ryan Herdlicka (Henrik Egerman), Ramona Mallory (Anne Egerman) and Aaron Lazar (Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm).
Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes.
Ticket prices: from $52 (in the balcony) to $137 (in the orchestra). (”select premium and aisle locations” as high as $267)
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