Monday, December 14, 2009

A Little Night Music


Photo by Joan Marcus

By Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler. Directed by Trevur Nunn. Walter Kerr Theatre.

Full-throated yea-sayers are in the minority for this long-overdue Broadway revival of Sondheim and Wheeler's frothy yet acerbic 1973 musical. Imported from an acclaimed chamber production at London's Menier Chocolate Factory, this Night Music acquired two marquee names along the way: Angela Lansbury, universally praised for her turn as Madame Armfeldt, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, unanimously lauded for her beauty but receiving mixed notices for her earthy take on Desiree, the middle-aged actress at the center of the action. Though a few critics find director Trevor Nunn's mix of stark design and broadly drawn characterizations sobering and provocative, most deplore both the somber sets and the exaggerated, even crude comic style of most of the cast aside from Lansbury, Zeta-Jones, and Alexander Hanson, as Fredrik. And nearly every critic slams the orchestra, a little for its playing (the tempi are apparently sluggish) and a lot for its size (a mere eight players!). For the record, two British papers also sent writers to cover the opening but we found them difficult to grade.

New York A
(Scott Brown) “Perpetual sunset,” the chorus sings, “is rather an unsettling thing.” So is this beautiful re-Bergmanized revival of Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim’s elegiac sex farce (based on Smiles of a Summer Night), with its restored Nordic tilt, its bracing draughts of carnal realpolitik, and its ghostly blue ache of some-requited love...Lansbury, who capsizes the theater with every roll of those outsize eyes, hurls mots from her throne like thunderbolts—not a single line lands askew. ALNM is among Sondheim’s near-perfect creations, but it’s not without its challenges, over and above the complexity of the music: Maunder overmuch and the show’s a drag; shine up the comedy and it risks coming off as a yuppie you-can-have-it-all manifesto. Maintaining that balance is the job of Desiree and Frederik, and Zeta-Jones—a tremendous presence here, in great voice—mates up with Hanson perfectly.

New Jersey Newsroom A-
(Michael Sommers) Looking as elegant as the musical she graces, Catherine Zeta-Jones makes a smashing Broadway debut in a wistful revival of "A Little Night Music"...A sophisticated musical in every respect — don't take anyone under the age of, say, 30 — "A Little Night Music" boasts a wry, well-turned text by Hugh Wheeler and an exceptionally lovely score by Stephen Sondheim that wafts the bittersweet story along in lilting waltz time...Staged more as a rueful comedy with music, this show unfolds quietly against a flexible setting of duskily mirrored panels that later opens to disclose a modest view of birch trees...Zeta-Jones is handsomely partnered by Hanson, a British actor also making his Broadway debut...Scarcely a dancing show in spite of its waltzes, the production moves smoothly at a leisurely pace that allows one to savor the words, music and evolving mix of emotions...Not everyone will enjoy the deliberate moodiness of this revival. Still, like the black gown Lansbury initially wears — gleaming with tiny brilliants on its bodice — the pensive quality suffusing Nunn's low-keyed production serves admirably as a background for a wonderfully iridescent score and a thoroughly adult story.

Backstage A-
(Erik Haagensen) A persuasive and entertaining account of a great American musical. The show runs longer this time around, a good three hours, due to the wealth of subtext being played in the scenes and slower tempos for the songs. The pace may be more deliberate, but the acting is richer, and interest never flags. One dividend is the attention being paid to Sondheim's phenomenal lyrics: I have never heard them get more laughs than in this production, aided by Jason Carr's elegant and supportive eight-piece re-orchestration. The generally excellent company is led by three top-flight performances...Zeta-Jones zeroes in on the fun Desiree and Fredrik had with each other during their affair. It makes for a unique and memorable creation...Alexander Hanson is every inch her equal...Angela Lansbury is enjoying another late-career triumph...Moments such as the soaring finish of "A Weekend in the Country" may not pack as much punch due to the reduced circumstances, but there are plenty of countervailing new pleasures to be found in Nunn's thoughtful take on this Broadway classic.

Theatermania A-
(David Finkle) Mostly effective...Catherine Zeta-Jones is even more beautiful in set-and-costume designer David Farley's Edwardian frocks and in the creamy flesh than she is on screen. Although her stage technique is still a bit rusty, and the role of frustrated actress Desiree Armfeldt is undoubtedly more complex than the song-and-dance parts she played in her earlier career, she does well by the play's pathos and wit...The reemergence of the tuner as a chamber a smart notion, well realized...No matter who's playing these comic figures immersed in their self-regard and unwitting buffoonery, the evening's heroes will always be Wheeler, who improved on the Bergman screenplay, and Sondheim, who in limiting his composing to 3/4 and 6/8 time rose to the challenge with some of his most beautiful and languorous melodies and some of his most consistently exquisite lyrics.

NY1 A-
(Roma Torre) Beautiful and deeply resonant, hitting every note with stunning honesty...Angela Lansbury's performance as Madame Armfeldt is magnificent. She nails her lines with the precision and killer timing that's likely to make her a contender for a sixth Tony Award. She also captures in Sondheim's music and Hugh Wheeler's book the overriding tone of the work -- a profound sense of longing, regret and sensuality. She is well-matched by Zeta-Jones, making a flawless Broadway debut with a performance that is also destined for a Tony nod...Her co-star Alexander Hanson, who originated the role of Desiree's former lover, lawyer Henrik Egerman in the London production fills out the starry trio with tremendous charisma and talent. Trevor Nunn's direction cut right to the soul of this work meticulously casting great voices all equally adept as actors...The show is long -- three hours with intermission and there are spots that could be cut. Too much of a good thing perhaps. But Sondheim being Sondheim, the virtues far outweigh the flaws.

USA Today B+
(Elysa Gardner) Lansbury, in an incandescent performance, lets us savor her haughty wit and see the fading but still defiant life force behind it. But Lansbury's is not the only marquee name in this production, or even the biggest. Catherine Zeta-Jones is cast as Night's true female lead, Madame Armfeldt's daughter Desiree, an actress facing middle age. The character is often played by older and less robustly sensual women; Zeta-Jones brings great warmth and vitality to the role and makes it easier to see why Desiree's old lover, Fredrik — the male lead, played with suave brio by Alexander Hanson — would vie with a blustering dragoon for her affections. Zeta-Jones is less effective, though, at suggesting Desiree's weary, rueful edges...This might owe something to Nunn's direction, as other performances here flirt with overzealousness...None of them, of course, blend wit and poignancy better than Lansbury — or Sondheim's score, for that matter. They are, without question, the two best reasons to see this revival.

Newsday B+
(Linda Winer) One of the most delectable musicals ever written, by Stephen Sondheim or anyone else. Angela Lansbury is giving a performance that deserves to be part of theater legend. Catherine Zeta-Jones is earthy and poignant in her confident Broadway debut. With all that, it is easier to live with—if not really forgive—the visual drabness and heavy hand of this gorgeous musical's first revival since its Tony-winning 1973 premiere. Director Trevor Nunn's skimpy production, conceived last year for London's tiny Menier Chocolate Factory, arrives with another of those scandalously reduced orchestras that Broadway producers try to pass off these days as innovation.

Financial Times B+
(Brendan Lemon) The intense pleasures of Sondheim’s wordplay and dazzling use of waltz time are expertly conveyed: Hanson and Catherine Zeta-Jones...bite off their lyrics with drilled precision. The roving lieder singers comment on the action with linguistic acumen. A distinct neither/nor quality, however, hovers in the atmosphere. The production is neither on the grand string-of-pearls scale of recent opera-house versions, nor of the one-bright-gem quality of recent chamber versions. The new, sometimes frustratingly dark Broadway set – smoked-mirrored panels in the first act, opening partially to birch trees in the second – is neither clever enough to embed the sophistication nor redolent enough to convey the summer-nights scenario. The costumes are lovely...The actors’ inability to flood the songs with emotional meaning makes the evening satisfying more than magical...Only Angela Lansbury, at 84 an old pro if ever there was one, is exactly where she should be at all times emotionally.

The Faster Times B+
(Jonathan Mandell) I understand some of the criticism. There are just eight members of the orchestra...The set consists mostly of a large wall that folds one way or another depending on the scene...In addition, the lighting is deliberately dark and the costumes lacking color, and some of the minor characters are directed to be broad and bawdy in ways that are at times distracting. Little of this dampens the experience for those of us who appreciate above all three (of course) elements of this production: Sondheim’s songs, Catherine Zeta-Jones’ allure, and Angela Lansbury’s majesty.

Variety B
(David Rooney) Director Trevor Nunn brings a blunt, heavy hand where a glissando touch is required, but the wit and sophistication of the material are sufficient to withstand even this phlegmatic staging. A handful of magnetic leads provides further insurance against the uneven production. At the center of that bright cluster is the luminous Catherine Zeta-Jones...Bewitching, confident and utterly natural, she breathes a refreshing earthiness and warm-blooded sensuality into the part...The production's real jewel is Angela Lansbury as her worldly mother...It's a marvelous role, and Lansbury's sublime performance in it alone makes this production unmissable. There's also a lovely three-generational throughline completed by the charming Keaton Whittaker's preternaturally intelligent Fredricka, who figures as Puck in this Scandinavian "Midsummer Night's Dream"...The monochromatic staging is further encumbered by stiff, presentational blocking that amplifies the operetta aspects but imposes a stodginess on the human drama, even when Nunn leans hard on the comedy...What's remarkable, given its unsatisfying elements, is that this "Night Music" still seduces.

Time Out NY B
(David Cote) Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. The orchestra is small, synthetic-sounding and weak; the set drab and dinky; and the pacing of songs often far too slow. Some cast members have been allowed to mug and simper for comic effect...On to good news: Catherine Zeta-Jones blazes with charisma, verve and wit as Desirée...If you’ve never seen a production of this romantic classic, by all means, go. The principals are suave and poised, and although Nunn seems to have encouraged them to sing their lyrics somewhat pedantically over the music, they sparkle and charm. Not to be missed is the venerable Lansbury putting her personal stamp on another Sondheim character. Alexander Hanson is a dashing figure, the sort of mature leading man we hardly ever see on Broadway. Would someone please steal his passport? Even so, let’s not expect the English to save Sondheim for us.

The Hollywood Reporter B
(Frank Scheck) Whatever its flaws, it's nonetheless a welcome return of a show that has inexplicably not received a Broadway revival since the original Hal Prince production in 1973...Nunn's minimalist approach contrasts sharply with Prince's original opulent staging, with mixed results. There will be many who bemoan the visually drab sets (largely composed of a large shifting wall and multiple mirrors) and monochromatic costumes, which add an unnecessary level of literal darkness to the proceedings. Even more painful to endure is the reduced, mere eight-piece orchestra which, despite the undeniably skillful orchestrations, simply doesn't do sufficient justice to Sondheim's magnificent, Tony-winning score. On the other hand, this intimate version does a wonderful job of accentuating the emotional complexities and endlessly witty dialogue of Hugh Wheeler's book, even if some of the overly broad performances by the supporting players threaten to overwhelm it. Zeta-Jones, younger than the performers who have traditionally played the role, is captivating as Desiree. The actress has musical theater experience, and it shows; she has terrific stage presence, unlike so many movie stars who tread the boards, and she sings and moves beautifully...Alexander Hanson, the sole carry-over from the London productions, is superb...Lansbury uses her well-honed theatrical instincts to perfect effect.

Lighting & Sound America B
(David Barbour) This melodic high comedy needs a high-style presentation, but style is a thing that comes and goes in Trevor Nunn's hot-and cold-running revival. Act I is enough to drive you to despair...Things improve markedly in Act II...Zeta-Jones relaxes into her role and strikes a real rapport with Alexander Hanson, the production's exemplary Frederik...Throughout the show's many ups and downs, Angela Lansbury's Madame Armfeldt remains in a class by herself...The rest of Nunn's production doesn't make the best case for an intimate staging of A Little Night Music. The pacing, particularly in Act I, is sluggish, and Jason Carr's cut-down orchestrations are a hit-or-miss affair...We don't get A Little Night Music so often that one can afford to ignore a major revival such as this. And, when Zeta-Jones and Hansen connect, or when Lansbury is working her magic, or when Sondheim's score takes flight, the show has its near-heavenly moments. But there's an element of style missing throughout.

New York Post B-
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) Lansbury's even better--if a tad too broadly comic--than in "Blithe Spirit," and it's a treat to hear her sing on Broadway for the first time since a short-lived "Mame" in 1983. Her "Liaisons" is a marvel of resourceful, inventive interpretation, lyric manglings be damned. But Madame Armfeldt is merely a supporting character. The star here is Zeta-Jones. She's radiant, yet doesn't shed much light on Desirée. Zeta-Jones is one of the few movie stars these days with golden-age Hollywood charisma...This is perfect for Desirée, who traffics in desire, but the character has more than one side. When she lets down her guard on the heartbreaking "Send in the Clowns," the fracture is unexpected here: Until then, we had no idea there were cracks under Zeta-Jones' breezy demeanor. But then Trevor Nunn's murky-looking production (did he and lighting designer Hartley T A Kemp take the "night" in the title literally?) isn't particularly subtle or graceful. Lacking both nuance and energy, it struggles to match the sophistication and gamesmanship of Sondheim's score, which evokes the effervescence of love, the abject pain it can cause, and the melancholy of its aftermath -- sometimes all in the same song.

Talkin' Broadway C+
(Matthew Murray) Catherine Zeta-Jones, as the famed actress Desirée Armfeldt, and Angela Lansbury, as Desirée’s mother, instinctively understand and project what Nunn and most of the rest of his cast do not: This show is not a turgid, angry tragedy, but a saucy lark that’s all about celebrating, as someone sensibly sings, “everything passing by"...Though Desirée is frequently portrayed as straight-up and stately, Zeta-Jones plays her as vivacity personified...Whereas Lansbury and Zeta-Jones land every lyric, line, and emotion, their castmates are lucky to eke out 65 percent most of the time. Hanson, who originated Fredrik in this production in London, is so stodgy and unappealing, it’s unclear why either Desirée or Anne would think twice of him...One suspects that Nunn is downplaying the show’s musical values in order to amplify its intimacy, which he practically confirms by so cranking down the tempos that most of the numbers barely step livelier than hangover slurring...Fortunately, this reconfiguring of the show’s basic nature is somewhat less harmful here than was the case in Nunn’s 2002 solemnizing of Oklahoma!. It’s still possible to have a good time.

The New York Times C
(Ben Brantley) A smirk shrouded in shadows. An elegiac darkness infuses this production...But the behavior of the characters who wander through a twilight labyrinth of passion in early-20th-century Sweden has the exaggerated gusto of second-tier boulevard farce, of people trying a little too hard for worldliness...In addition to being drop-dead gorgeous in David Farley’s wasp-waisted period dresses, Ms. Zeta-Jones brings a decent voice, a supple dancer’s body and a vulpine self-possession to her first appearance on Broadway...Her Desirée, to be honest, is much like her Velma: earthy, eager and a tad vulgar...Such traits lend a not always appropriate edge of desperation to the droll Desirée...Though Mr. Hanson turns in a suitably suave, measured performance as the middle-aged lawyer hoping to reclaim his youth, many of the other cast members exaggerate their characters’ defining traits to the bursting point...[The design's] somber, less-is-more approach could be effective were the ensemble plugged into the same rueful sensibility. But there is only one moment in this production when all its elements cohere perfectly...“Where’s discretion of the heart, where’s passion in the art, where’s craft?” Madame Armfeldt sings in lamentation. Looking at the production she appears in, I’d say she has a point.

Bloomberg News C
(John Simon) The show is based on one of Ingmar Bergman’s masterpieces, “Smiles of a Summer Night,” but the libretto that Hugh Wheeler adapted from it is little more than hack work. There is, though, Sondheim’s great score to balance things out...Lansbury is commanding as always, making Madame’s words, spoken and sung, resonate with multiple meanings...Zeta-Jones, on the other hand, is all artifice, whether in the play-within-the-play, in which Desiree is a notorious seductress, or offstage, when she is supposed to be her irresistible self. Words are delivered in a stilted rubato, oozing self-satisfaction, with affected facial expressions that are smug and patronizing...Alexander Hanson, a British import, is a persuasive, well-sung Egerman, sardonic, fatherly, boyish and mellow by judicious turns. Some other characters suffer from Nunn’s tendency to exaggerate the farcical...A mixed bag, then, made desirable by Sondheim’s music -- far from little and equally good for night and day.

The Daily News C
(Joe Dziemianowicz) Dim and downsized...It doesn't do justice to Stephen Sondheim's most elegant musical...Though the show is mostly well sung, the small orchestra sounds thin. The scenery recalls department store windows - nothing romantic in that. Sluggish pacing makes it feel like "A Lotta Night Music" and performances are too modern for a tale of romantic entanglements in late-19th century Scandinavia...Zeta-Jones, a London theater vet and an Oscar winner for "Chicago," knows her way around a stage and a musical. She looks ravishing, and although she's very emphatic in the show's famous number, "Send in the Clowns," she's got a pretty voice that serves her and the show well. But there's nothing world-weary about her Desiree to indicate she's ready to settle down...Also odd is Zeta-Jones' skittering accent, which wanders from Wales to mid-America to the Deep South.

Associated Press C-
(Michael Kuchwara) A curious affair. There are some lovely moments, most of them supplied by Angela Lansbury, but too much of this adult, sophisticated show, which opened Sunday at the Walter Kerr Theatre, seems forced, boisterous and a little gorgeous, looking just right as this ripe, alluring woman who has never shirked from the way of all flesh. Zeta-Jones has a throaty, sensuous voice which she uses to good, flirty effect. But her acting, particularly in the first act, seems overdone, too strenuously self-aware...As Desiree's mother, the luminous Lansbury is a wonder...The aging process has never been more eloquently put on display...Hanson gives stalwart, gentlemanly support to the production's two leading ladies, and he plays Fredrik, the weary lawyer, with a just the right amount of knowing resignation...Where this production collapses is in the performances of the young people. True, they are supposed to be impetuous and, of course, foolish, but in this revival, Nunn has allowed them to become extravagantly cartoonish and unlikable.

Bergen Record D+
(Robert Feldberg) This gossamer, cynical look at love, based on Ingmar Bergman's 1955 film comedy "Smiles of a Summer Night," doesn't offer many points of emotional entrance...The mostly tiresome revival...doesn't give much reason for reappraisal...Rather than inducing a concentrated focus on the characters, the scenery is stifling, as well as bland...Whether at Nunn's behest, or on their own, many of the actors, including Zeta-Jones, work too hard to sell their characters. Even outfitted with a generic red wig, Zeta-Jones is a dazzling-looking woman. And playing Desiree Armfeldt, a celebrated actress who's had many lovers, she's amiable, amusing and exudes a very appealing lustiness...Making her Broadway debut, Zeta-Jones seems to feel the need to imprint her character on us. There are lots of over-animated facial expressions, and the frequent use of jagged gestures to punch home dialogue. You want to remind her of the old advice: Don't just do something. Stand there...Lansbury, playing Desiree's elderly, world-weary mother, delivers a sophisticated, delightfully piquant performance. So what else is new?

The Washington Post D
(Peter Marks) An actress radiating youthful vigor and sensuality is not a great fit for Desiree Armfeldt, the soignée Sondheim heroine whose most ravishing days are behind her. So it's an unfortunate truth that Catherine Zeta-Jones is not ideally cast as regretful, wistful Desiree in Trevor Nunn's virtually never-right revival of the suavely farcical "A Little Night Music"...When all is said and done, she is revealed as one of the less ill-suited elements of the production...The very best working part is five-time Tony winner Angela Lansbury...For this elegant Scandinavian roundel of amour, of foolish old lovers and foolish young lovers, of characters who couple for sex or for vanity or for an annuity, Nunn takes us on what feels like a cheap date.

New York A 13; New Jersey Newsroom A- 12; Backstage A- 12; Theatermania A- 12; NY1 A- 12; USA Today B+ 11; Newsday B+ 11; FT B+ 11; Faster Times B+ 11; Variety B 10; Time Out NY B 10; The Hollywood Reporter B 10; LS&A B 10; New York Post B- 9; Talkin' Broadway C+ 8; The New York Times C 7; Bloomberg News C 7; The Daily News C 7; Associated Press C- 6; Bergen Record D+ 5; The Washington Post D 4; TOTAL: 198/21=9.43 (B-)

1 comment:

Anonymous said... review by Elyse Sommer

Sure Mr. Nunn has perhaps taken the "little" and "night" of the title a bit too seriously, in terms of scenery and some of the lighting, but any Sondheim musical, and this one especially, is too big on pleasurable, sophisticated lyrics and music to miss.