Tuesday, January 12, 2010

REVIEW: A Little Night Music

Review of the January 9 matinee performance at the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York City. Starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Alexander Hanson and Angela Lansbury. Direction by Trevor Nunn. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler. Three hours, including 20 minute intermission.

The Tony-winning musical A Little Night Music is being given a sublime, beautifully rendered and amazingly clear revival at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Boasting the lead talents of no less the five time Tony winner Angela Lansbury, Oscar winner Catherine Zeta-Jones and London transplant, Alexander Hanson, not to mention a supporting cast of many of today's up and coming main stem talents and a multiple award-winning director, Trevor Nunn, this revival is nearly perfect in every way.

Before I start my gush, let me take issue with the one negative criticism I have of the show. Given the austerity of the production - minimal scenery, minimal props, and a scaled back orchestra and the deliberate focusing of the play with a Chekhovian slant, it really calls to notice that much of the first act is a careful, deliberate, and, unfortunately, slow series of expository scenes. That is, plainly, an awful lot of set up, character introduction and plot points. Aside from the roughly first ten minutes of the show, a gorgeously sung overture and complex partner-switching waltz, followed by a highly comical scene to establish the influence of Madame Armfeldt (Lansbury) over the entire evening, the next half hour or so of act one drags quite a bit. Thankfully, the rest of the act builds nicely to a heart-racing finish with "A Weekend in the Country," where, all the parts and players in place, we pause before the real action starts.

Oddly enough, some two days after the performance I attended, and after nearly all of that time spent pondering my thoughts before committing them to blog, I can't pinpoint any other cause for the drag beyond Hugh Wheeler's book. Every performer comes out of the gate at full speed, and maintains it over the nearly three hour performance. The staging is both spare and interesting. At first I thought it might be the plainness of the production, and I assure you that is not the case. David Farley's sets and costumes suggest, rather than push us to see the opulence of the Swedish upper crust. The simple set easily transforms into various bedrooms, a theatre, a hotel suite and the lush countryside during the time of year when the sun never quite sets (wonderfully rendered in the lighting by Hartley TA Kemp). Here, time stands still or at least in question as one never knows when to sleep or stay up the whole night so as not to miss anything. The costumes - various shades of black and gray in act one, various shades of white and cream in act two - do nicely to remind us of just who is of what station. No, the sets and costumes only add to the thought-provoking whole of the piece, they don't drag it down.

With orchestrations by Jason Carr (who provided the same service to the pared-down Sunday in the Park with George a few seasons ago, and will again this season with the pared-down La Cage aux Folles) that certainly don't sound like only a few instruments, the show is actually helped, I think. Sondheim's lyrics are notoriously wordy and complex. The more carefully chosen orchestration and even the lack of it in spots makes crystal clear every syllable sung by the able cast. Here, the lack of instrumentation that never sounds less than full and augmented instead by some glorious vocal arrangements adds to the understanding of the work, always working for the piece, not against it. No, the music - some of Sondheim's greatest - does not slow down act one, either.

It might be the Chekhovian-minimalist approach Trevor Nunn has taken with the piece. That the characters are broad types has never really been in question, but this approach crystallizes those types and brings them to the forefront. Brilliantly, however, this only serves as a bright counterpoint to the darker undertones, nuances and complications of these characters. In short, Nunn has heightened the simplicity to reveal in astonishing clarity the complexity of both the characters and their stories. This may just be the first Broadway musical in High Definition.

That seriously leaves the lengthy scenes in Wheeler's book. There are quite a few times in mid-act one that there are several minutes between songs and new characters and plot twists. Now, let me really confuse the issue. Having seen the whole thing, I am thoroughly convinced that should I ever return to the production, I will find the whole of act one as engrossing as the rest of this beautifully stunning, utterly amazing production.

From the late in the first act mini-play, also known as Angela Lansbury's definitive rendition of "Liaisons," through and including the classy curtain call, this A Little Night Music is everything a musical should be. Yes, it is true, I am a devoted fan, but were she not that good, I'd be honest and say so (she was the best she could be in Deuce, but not excellent, for example). But I'll say it now. Clear more space on your shelf, Ms. Lansbury, you are about to become a six time Tony winner. When she takes the stage, you are riveted, hanging on her every word, and more importantly, on her every glance. While her one solo number doesn't afford her the opportunity to do any sort of belting, she wrings every possible drop of emotion out of the song, easily vacillating between the troubling here and now and the glories and disappointments of her past. One look, one drop of her heavily lashed eyelids, conveys as much, if not more of Madame Armfeldt's story. In one song, she is teaching a master class in acting, musical theatre and grace. And the treasures of her performance are rich throughout. Is there a better actress onstage today that can deliver a comic zinger or deadly pronouncement better than she? Not even close. There are many reasons why she is a Broadway legend, and every one of them can be seen in her magnetic performance.

Alexander Hanson is the lone transfer from the London production, and it is immediately apparent the moment he takes the stage. He gives a commanding, fully realized performance. Each of his numbers are beautifully sung and wonderfully acted. He, like his co-stars, takes every opportunity given to him and runs with it. Each line is thought out like a Shakespearean soliloquy, each song is a musical unto itself. As his Fredrik interacts with the majority of the cast, it is interesting to watch the actor adjust his character for each of the vastly different people he interacts with; he changes nuances like a chameleon. His scenes with Ms. Zeta-Jones, pivotal to the entire piece, are masterfully performed by both. And that he often provides a simple frame for her more animated scenes, you never lose sight of him in the relationship equation.

I expected that Catherine Zeta-Jones would be good, though I wondered how an actress long from the stage would be able to sustain a character and sing and dance for a solid three hours, rather than the little snippets of moments captured on camera over however many takes and cuts. Having seen this remarkable performance, I feel almost ashamed of myself for thinking so. She is a tour de force as an actress, a stunningly beautiful woman, and she makes Desiree a dazzling, never dull, always complex, always thrilling person to watch. And I will go out on a limb here to say that she may just be giving the definitive performance of "Send in the Clowns." I have seen this show many times over the years, and until last Saturday, I thought I understood that song. But having seen her (and Mr. Hanson in the accompanying scene) I realize now how much I didn't get. She is simply a marvel, and she could very likely be adding "Tony-winning" to her already Oscar-winning moniker.

The supporting cast, another embarrassment of riches, more than holds their own again the gale force of the three leading performances. Aaron Lazar (below, far right) is the perfect Carl-Magnus, equal parts pomp, circumstance, machismo, sexuality and stupidity. You are, like his wife and mistresses, mostly disgusted by him, but inexplicably turned on and drawn to him. His mentally superior but subservient wife is played with wit and complexity by Erin Davie, who dazzled as Young Edie on this same stage in Grey Gardens. Here she shows a more mature grace and beauty with darker undertones. It is nice to see her stretch as an actress, especially as she navigates the huge span required of a character that goes from "Every Day a Little Death" to the frivolous affectations of a drunken plot to win back her husband.

Probably one of the toughest roles in the show, 18 year-old virgin bride Anne, is played by Broadway debutante Ramona Mallory. Hers is an extremely vigorous performance, full of old world girly giggles, pouts and flounces. And she comes dangerously close to over doing it, perhaps even occasionally going past the line. While she doesn't quite ever leave one thinking she is the character rather than acting a character, she makes some wonderful choices as the play goes on and her character does some growing up. She is particularly good in the opening scene of Act Two, as Anne must show that she is big enough to sit at the grown up table so to speak. Watching her try to put her little plan to keep her husband from Desiree in action, all while trying to affect the mannerisms of the other adults is both funny and quite charming. An appropriately opposite performance is being given by another actor making his Broadway debut in the role of Henrik, Hunter Ryan Herdlicka. As the painfully conflicted (between the extremes of religion and sexuality) young scholar, Henrik is a boy of extremes himself. Deep in despair over the teachings of Martin Luther, and deep in the throes of adolescent, well, horniness, Henrik would rather die than deal with his feelings toward his step-mother, Anne, age appropriate though she may be. Herdlicka manages to makes all of that emotion believable, honest and very humorous.

The lusty house maid, Petra, is played by a very earthy Leigh Ann Larkin, who is making a career of Sondheim revivals, last appearing in LuPone's Gypsy. Her Petra is out there, full force, grabbing every bit of life that a maid can grab. She's been in many a bed, proud of it, but she is no slut. No, this Petra sets her sights on a target that can fulfill her needs and reels him in; her "The Miller's Son" is vibrant and as earthy as the character. Oh, she tries to help Henrik lose some of his steam, but she really finds her way with another servant, Frid, a hulking man, played with great bulk and humor by Bradley Dean.

At the performance I attended, the role of young Fredrika was played by Katherine Leigh Doherty (Keaton Whittaker alternates - pictured below). This young lady is going to be a major star, should she so choose. She has such a mature presence and naturalness about her. One has to think that a child who more than holds her own in scenes almost exclusively with Ms. Zeta-Jones and Ms. Lansbury must have soaked up every bit of wisdom, grace and presence from these two masters. It is terrific to see such a complex performance - her Fredrika is smarter than both her mother and grandmother - from an actor, but that she is so young is truly remarkable.

Finally, I must mention the ensemble of actor/singers, who provide gorgeous vocals for the overture, not a little scenery changing, and wry, well-acted commentary to each and every scene. They are Stephen R. Buntrock, Marissa McGowan, Jayne Paterson and Kevin David Thomas. They provide the glue and flow of this production, never slowing it down.

No, the only slow down is in the words of the lengthier act one scenes, and even that is a relatively small quibble. Knowing what I know now, I bet act one will sail by the next time I see A Little Night Music. Was there really any doubt I'd go again?

Grade: A+

(Photos by Joan Marcus.)

Comments? Leave one here or email me at jkstheatrescene@yahoo.com.


  1. I'm so glad you enjoyed it! I was totally captivated by the story and the music.

    I know some people who've seen it before were disappointed but this was my first experience with "A Little Night Music." The only song I knew was "Send in the Clowns." And I just loved it, for all the reasons you mention. I felt like I was transported somewhere for three hours. It was a delightful afternoon.

    Catherine Zeta-Jones is lovely. I was sitting in the right orchestra, 3rd row, so I had a great view of Angela Lansbury during "Liaisons." I was holding my breath - I couldn't believe I was hearing Angela Lansbury sing on stage! I know some people think Ramona Mallory and Hunter Ryan Herdlicka were over the top but I kind of thought they were supposed to be - they represent the eagerness and impetuousness of youth. They were funny!

  2. Hi, Esther!

    Thanks for reading and taking the time to write.

    I am so glad you loved the show as much as I did. I have friends who feel exactly the same way as the people you know, but I agree with your assessment of Anne and Henrik, especially in light of the Chekhovian slant Trevor Nunn gave the piece - social commentary through types abounds in this show.

    And you are so right about Ms. Zeta-Jones. She is lovely. But you really hit the nail on the head with Angela Lansbury! She is absolutely breathtaking. (Though I am green with envy over your seat!)

    Stay in touch, and tell your friends about the blog!


  3. I can't wait to see this next week. Thanks for the warning that it's a little draggy...I've heard that Angela is amazing and I'm excited to hear her sing. Great, detailed review!

  4. Hi, Pun!

    Welcome back! It's nice to hear from you again.

    Thanks for your compliment. Be sure to write and let me know what you think of the show yourself!



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