A Little Night Liaison with Sondheim

It is safe to say that 2009-2010 has been the season for Stephen Sondheim on Broadway.  His newest production, Sondheim on Sondheim served to be a musical walk down memory lane.  West Side Story was a successful revival that brought new and experienced theatergoers to the Great White Way.  When the revival of A Little Night Music opened in December 2009, the likelihood of its success was undebatable – Catherine Zeta-Jones starring as Desiree Armfeldt, Angela Lansbury as Madame Armfeldt and the music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, total no-brainer.   Catherine Zeta-Jones, who revealed her singing and dancing chops in the film adaptation of Chicago, won Best Actress in a Musical at this year’s Tony awards.  The production was also nominated for Best Revival of a Musical, Best Sound Design and Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Angela Lansbury.  The show took a brief hiatus in June after Catherine Zeta-Jones’ and Angela Lansbury’s contracts ended.  On July 13 the production resumed with Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch portraying Desiree and Madame Armfeldt. With new cast members in place, A Little Night Music turned a page in this revival’s story without losing any of its potency. 

Set in Sweden at the turn of the 20th century, A Little Night Music brings the elegance and sexual repression of the Victorian era to life with the same cultivation as a waltz.  With the sparse furniture and rotating sets, director Trevor Nunn shines a spotlight on the undercurrent of love rather than the romanticism that accompanies this emotion.  The loss of love…longing…the sport of love…wasted times are all themes that reveal themselves like lit streetlamps at dusk.   The sets seamlessly transition from one act to the next and offer a balance as “the young” and “the fools” stumble over self created roadblocks on their trek to true love.

 The cast carries the melancholy tone that accompanies the story just as beautifully as they deliver the dialogue and musical numbers.  Alexander Hanson is enjoyable as Fredrik Egerman, the middle-aged lawyer that had a love affair with Desiree and is now in a sexless marriage with Anne.  So clever, he appears to know everything but really knows nothing.  Ramona Mallory is delightful as Anne Egerman; the 18-year-old virgin married to Fredrik.  She holds her chastity with the same constriction as she holds her secret love for Henrik, Fredrik’s son.  As Henrik, Hunter Ryan Herdlicka gives a convincing performance of a young man tortured by desire and morality. The breakout performance is given by Erin Davie.  As the Countess Charlotte Malcolm she is jocular and tragic, and comes close to stealing the spotlight from Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch.  But the combination of Peters and Stritch is hard to eclipse, both are absolutely radiant and can bring all the luminosity of the moon on stage.

The real question I had as I waited for the curtain to rise at the Walter Kerr Theatre was if the addition of Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch would go over well with Generation X and Y.  Both accomplished actresses are Broadway veterans, but box-office superstar Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury (who introduced herself to these age groups while playing Jessica Fletcher in the long-running CBS series Murder She Wrote) are far more recognizable faces.  It was Sondheim that suggested Bernadette Peters take over the role of Desiree; his foresight would pay off tremendously for this revival.  


The role of Desiree Armfeldt was tailor made for Bernadette Peters.  She is a Broadway baby literally that can translate the bohemian life Desiree has lead as famous stage actress extremely well.   Her presence on stage can only be compared to a breath of fresh H2O.  She brings an effervescent charm to Desiree without losing any of the maturity and complexity of the character.  Her performance is like sipping a glass of Veuve Clicquot’s La Grande Dame champagne – delectable from beginning to end.  She is beyond familiar with Sondheim’s work starring in productions of Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods and Gypsy.  His music and lyrics and her voice fit like the famous Versace dress Jennifer Lopez wore to the Grammy’s – exposing all the best emotions and features of the other.  This pairing comes to a crescendo when Bernadette sings “Send in the Clowns.”   The emotion Bernadette delivers exposes the lament in this song so exquisitely that by the last bar my eyes were swelling with tears. 

Elaine Stritch is uproarious as Madame Armfeldt; her comedic timing is as infinite as her talent.  During the performance Elaine had to have a few lines read to her; her savvy as a comedic actress placed a lovely veil over her forgetfulness.  In fact, it added another layer to Madame Armfeldt, a sharp-tongued woman that seems to be stuck in the past.  Watching Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch on stage together was like unearthing rare gems.  My question had been answered; no member of the audience, regardless of their age, could feel cheated if they missed the performances of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury.  Bernadette Peters, Elaine Stritch and the rest of the cast are worth the price of admission and then some, but despite the celebrities on stage, the eternal star of A Little Night Music is the music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim.  Like the moon, his compositions smile upon us all; it is an essential component in making this revival and any future productions a triumph.

Photos:  Joan Marcus for Broadway.com