December 19, 2009

Too Little Music in "A Little Night Music"

“Uh-oh,” my husband K said as he looked at the Playbill before the start of the new revival of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music that opened Sunday at the Walter Kerr Theatre.  “They’re not doing Jonathan’s orchestrations.”  Jonathan is Jonathan Tunick, a friend but also the premier orchestrator on Broadway, a frequent Sondheim collaborator and the man who did the arrangements for the 20-plus musicians who played in the original production that opened in 1973 and won the Tony for that year’s Best Musical.

The current production was created at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, which seems to love doing American musicals (its production of La Cage aux Folles is coming to Broadway in April).  But the folks at the Menier just don’t seem to care for the idea that you need musicians to play them. Last year they had a five-member orchestra for their production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George.  Now they’ve not only jettisoned Jonathan’s arrangements but hired a mere eight musicians to play the new ones by Jason Carr.

Sondheim and book writer Hugh Wheeler based A Little Night Music on “Smiles of a Summer Night,” a rare comedy by Ingmar Bergman that follows the romantic misalliances of a group of upper-class Swedes at the turn-of-the-last century. And Sondheim created a gorgeous score in which the songs are inspired by the three quarter time of the waltz. For a show like this one, that deals with love, passion and rue, you want to be swept away by the music. But no matter how talented the musicians are—and K, a longtime pit musician, knows people in this orchestra—eight players can’t do that. 

Some huge screen panels and a few pillows on the floor can’t recreate the sumptuousness of a rich country villa either. But David Farley, who did both the set and the costumes, has created suitably beautiful dresses for the women and dapper suits for the men. But what really gives director Trevor Nunn’s production its glitter is its star wattage.  Catherine Zeta-Jones plays Desirée Armfeldt, a glamorous actress who is confronting middle age.  And the great Angela Lansbury plays her mother, a retired courtesan who has always been very practical about matters of love. 

The Welsh-born Zeta-Jones, who won an Oscar for her role as Velma Kelly in the 2002 film version of Chicago, got her start in British musicals and she’s totally comfortable on a stage. She looks great there too. But although she turned 40 this year, Zeta-Jones seems almost too young to play Desirée. And she over and under emotes the show’s signature song “Send in the Clowns,” capturing the regret Desirée feels about her lost love and lost youth but not the wry self-awareness that makes her the survivor she is. As the elderly Madame Armfeldt, Lansbury spends almost the entire play in a wheel-chair but manages to radiate more energy than anyone else on stage. She knows how to say more with the raise of an eyebrow than most actors can with a two-page monologue.

The rest of the cast veers too much into the cartoonish for me, particularly Leigh Ann Larkin as the lusty maid Petra and Aaron Lazar as Desirée’s pompous current lover Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, although Lazar has a magnificent voice. But Alexander Hanson, the sole holdover from the London cast who plays the lawyer Fredrik Egerman who is the true love of Desiree’s life, not only sings well but acts well too.  The main problem for him is that it’s hard to really shine while standing alongside Zeta-Jones’ radiant beauty. 

Don't get me wrong, this is a pleasant production.  But it’s hard to fall in love with it.  Maybe it’s the musical itself.  I didn’t see Hal Prince’s original production but my husband K and I walked out at intermission when we saw the 2003 revival at City Opera. The City Opera orchestra sounded great but that production’s stars Juliet Stevenson and Jeremy Irons, two terrific actors, couldn’t sing a lick. 

Maybe, K suggested as we walked over to Orso for a post-show dinner, the best way to bring A Little Night Music back would be in a concert version. Forget about the sets and costumes. Cast top-notch singers. Bring back Jonathan’s orchestrations. And, of course, hire a full orchestra.


Kevin Daly said...

Roundabout won with their gala concert reading last January with Natasha Richardson, however, the musical can work (and has) with full staging. What the show needs is a director who understands not only the delicacy of the material but the balance between the "whipped cream and knives" associated with the show. My choice, hands down, would be Bartlett Sher.

But oh, Lansbury is so superb!

jan@broadwayandme said...

Hey Kevin, thanks for leaving a comment. The fact that she would have made a sublime Desirèe is just one of a zillion reasons to continue mourning the loss of Natasha Richardson. The Brits seem to revise A Little Night Music more than we do, although I'd give my eyeteeth to have seen the 2002 Ravinia production with Patti LuPone and George Hearn as Desirèe and Fredrik, Marc Kudisch as Carl-Magnus, and Zoe Caldwell as Madame Armfeldt. For now, though, I've been listening to various versions of "Send in the Clowns" on YouTube, including the appropriately legendary Judi Dench version but for my money no one has captured all the colors as we well as the original Desirèe Glynis Johns.