Erin Davie, Bradley Dean, Alexander Hanson, Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, Angela Lansbury, Leigh Ann Larkin, Aaron Lazar, Ramona Mallory, Marissa McGowan, Betsy Morgan, Karen Murphy, Jayne Paterson, Kevin David Thomas, Catherine Zeta-Jones
It’s no wonder that the Trevor Nunn-helmed production of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s musical A Little Night Music began at the 180-seat Menier Chocolate Factory in London’s fringe, a mini producing powerhouse where the recent revival of Sunday in the Park with George as well as the upcoming Broadway production of La Cage aux Folles had their starts.
With a modest but attractive unit set by David Farley, who also designed the aforementioned Chocolate Factory productions, Nunn’s production acquits itself as intimate and sharp, full of shadows, color, and light in all the right places, reducing what was already a chamber musical to an even more scaled-down version of itself while mixing Chekhovian darkness and detail with the pastoral frivolity of Shakespearean comedy to create a thrilling hybrid.
Based on Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, Night Music‘s story focuses on a weekend spent in the country by a group of Swedish lovers. Lawyer Frederik Egerman, who’s recently taken a young wife named Anne, finds himself falling in love all over again with Desiree Armfeldt, an old fling who’s back in town appearing in a French farce.
After reconnecting with Frederik at the theatre following the performance, Desiree hatches a scheme to bring Frederik back into his life by having her mother invite his family for a weekend in the country at the Armfeldt manse. Little does she know that her lover, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, has plans to arrive unannounced with his wife Charlotte, an old school friend of Anne’s with plans to set things straight amongst the married couples so that Desiree will disappear from the picture.
What will pull most audience members in is the star wattage of Oscar-winner Catherine Zeta-Jones as aging actress Desiree Armfeldt and five-time Tony-winner Angela Lansbury as her mother, Madame Armfeldt. Happily, I can report that both delight in their respective roles.
Zeta-Jones plays up Desiree’s narcissistic qualities while retaining her dignity, full of ennui as she turns in a thrillingly regretful rendition of the show’s most famous song, Send In The Clowns. Sondheim’s challenging score, composed entirely in various waltz-inflected time signatures, is a doozy for any performer, let along one hitherto unaccustomed to Sondheim’s lyrical prowess (listen for the truckloads of internal rhymes he’s packed into this particular score).
Lansbury, whose Madame Armfeldt, a former prostitute, is confined to a wheelchair for most of the show, has the privileged duty of landing the majority of the show’s sharpest barbs. Her comic timing remains razor sharp after five decades on-stage. The chance to see Lansbury performing in a Sondheim musical is one not to be missed, making one wonder why in the past few years she’d brave the boards in something as stiff as Deuce or as frivolous as Blithe Spirit (as fun as she was to watch).
Thankfully Trevor Nunn’s direction succeeds in keeping the musical’s multivariate plot moving swiftly over the course of it’s three-hour duration, which passes as though it were over in half the time though there are several weak links amongst the cast – most notably Leigh Ann Larkin’s woefully misdirected Petra (at one point, her sensuality reaches so unbridled a peak that she’s rubbing up against a birch tree) and Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, whose brash portrayal of Henrik flies against the comedy inherent in the character as written by playing the part for laughs.
Making up for the few disappointments within the cast is Alexander Hanson, who originated the role of Frederik at the Menier and whose bold, confident voice and easy acting demeanor make him a natural fit with Zeta-Jones and Lansbury, able to match the luster of his leading ladies. Similarly adept is the quintet of Liebeslieders, the chorus within the piece who comment upon and further express the central lovers’ romantic foibles.
Nunn and savvy choreographer Lynne Page have done well to recognize the advantages of making Night Music more intimate, ultimately giving us a fresh new look at a now-classic musical where the star power of its actors is matched by their talent as well as the superlative material in which they’re performing. There’s little to impede those interested in truly magnificent musical theatre from enjoying this top-flight production of one of Sondheim’s best-written shows.