With her name above the title at Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theatre Oscar winner Catherine Zeta-Jones makes for great box office in the entertaining revival of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. The screen beauty plays Desiree, the fading actress at the center of the elegant classic. If her glamorous presence is not exactly a perfect fit, she generates enough star power in the Trevor Nunn production to pack the houses in spite of the evening’s shortcomings.
Based on Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smiles of a Summer Night” the musical boasts some of Sondheim’s most lush melodies and insightfully clever lyrics. The original won numerous awards, yet went on to become a forgettable Elizabeth Taylor film before the current revival.
Trevor Nunn’s downsized production comes from London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, where Nunn essentially reduced the orchestra to 8 musicians playing Jason Carr’s arrangements beautifully with mixed in amplified sound that comes off tiny in the big Broadway house. What might have been aesthetically necessary in the Menier may feel small, even weak, to Sondheim lovers.
The good news is Catherine Zeta-Jones in her Broadway debut makes a confident presence as Desiree and she looks marvelous in David Farley’s period costumes. Desiree is a middle aged star, a professional seductress, who is suddenly visited by a former love, Fredrik (Alexander Hanson), a widowed lawyer now 11 months into an unconsummated marriage. Ann (Ramona Mallory), his new bride, is an 18 year old virgin, who harbors an unconscious desire for Henrik (Hunter Ryan Herdlicka), Fredrik’s seminary bound son. Adding to the intrigue and the emotional dynamics is Carl Magnus (a splendid Aaron Lazar), Desiree’s jealous lover, and his craft wife Charlotte (a fine Erin Davie).
Zeta-Jones, the bona fide movie star, is a suggestive actress with a good voice and London theater credits under her belt. She throws herself into the role with gusto and her sensual take on Desiree, although a delight, sheds no new light on the character. She comes across as more robust than world weary. And she is a bit too vulgar for the late 19th century tale. Nunn’s contemporary feeling production misses the sophistication and nuance necessary for the Sondheim classic and may have been tailed to Zeta-Jones’ limitations.
Reprising his London performance Alexander Hanson is simply wonderful, but too good looking to convince anyone that he is short on his options with women.
Rising above the entire proceedings is Angela Lansbury, the five time Tony award winning legend in a supporting role as Madame Armfeldt, Desiree’s sharp tongued all knowing mother. She has some of the most memorable lines in Hugh Wheeler’s sardonic book. The 84 year old actress understands just what is needed and she makes the most of every moment. Her take on the song “Liaisons” is a memorable highlight of the evening and still lingers in my mind’s eye.
Gordin & Christiano
A Little Night Music is now playing at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenues . For tickets call 212-239-6200.