Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Thursday, February 22, 2018

ALNM-MadameDesireElaine Stritch, left, as Madame Armfeldt and Bernadette Peters, right, as Desirée Armfeldt. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

NEW YORK – "A Little Night Music" is one of composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s most glorious creations. It is an elegant operetta, ingeniously written in three-quarter waltz time and complemented by an intelligent, witty book by Hugh Wheeler that was suggested by Ingmar Berman’s classic 1955 film, "Smiles of a Summer Night."

Basically, it is a musical roundelay about a group of early 20th-century Swedish aristocrats languishing in the glow of their country's never-ending twilight and musing about loves lost and found, past, present and future.

When it premiered in producer-director Harold Prince’s 1973 sumptuous production, it seemed to be a work of perfection. It went on to win a shelfful of Tony awards, including Best Musical of the season.

Fast-forward to London 2008, where the protean English director Trevor Nunn, known for staging Shakespeare and mega-musicals like "Cats" and "Les Miserables," decides to mount a chamber version of the show at the miniscule Menier Chocolate Factory, a popular South Bank venue. Recent Chocolate Factory successes that have found their way to our shores have been "Sunday in the Park with George" and this season’s Tony winner for best musical revival, "La Cage aux Folles."

Mr. Nunn’s scaled-down "A Little Night Music" revival opened in New York last December at the Walter Kerr Theater on West 48th Street with a mostly American cast bolstered by the movie star wattage of Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones. It received respectful reviews, if not raves, and, thanks to the drawing power of its leading ladies, broke box office records. Ms. Zeta-Jones also received a Tony award for her performance.

When the two stars’ contracts ended in June, the show’s producers were unwilling to bring down the curtain. Instead, they enlisted a couple of Sondheim stalwarts and Broadway royals, Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch, to step in.

After a brief rehearsal period, they began performances in mid-July. The results have been mixed.

I have had reservations about Mr. Nunn’s revival of the show from the beginning, especially because his glacial pacing slows down the musical’s early scenes to a crawl and tends to halt the audience’s interest and involvement as well as enjoyment. It also seemed that Ms. Peters and Ms. Stritch had neither the time nor director Nunn’s guidance to create persuasive characterizations. They seemed to have been pasted into Mr. Nunn’s original production just to keep the show running.

Ms. Peters, who is 62, still looks like a soubrette, hardly the character of Desirée Armfeldt, a middle-aged actress who has spent a lifetime touring the Swedish provinces playing Ibsen. As much as I admire Ms. Peters’s acting prowess, I would never envision her as Hedda Gabler, for instance. (Glynis Johns, who created the role in 1973, was only 50 at the time, but brought maturity and sophistication in her voice, eyes and movements.)

Ms. Peters’s performance is charming and agreeable, but that’s all. The one exception is when she sings the show’s signature song, "Send in the Clowns." Here, Ms. Peters finds the key to Desirée in a true and simple way. For the first time, she shows us the core of this woman’s bittersweet character. She also gives the audience a preview of what her own performance might ultimately become.

Ms. Stritch, at 84, is chronologically correct to play her mother, Mme. Armfeldt, but I have never thought of her as the object of the desire of barons and kings of Europe as she purports in the brilliant Sondheim showstopper, "Liaisons." To me, she has always been as American as a tart apple pie and a true Broadway baby. This turns into a plus for Ms. Stritch, allowing her to deliver with unerring timing every scintilla of humor Mr. Wheeler has written for her character.

To be fair and accurate, I should emphasize that neither performer is unpleasant or unattractive in her role. Quite the contrary, in fact. But as believable characters, each has a ways to go.

The small orchestra of nine, under Rob Bowman’s baton, does justice to Mr. Sondheim’s score as do all the performers who sing its songs exquisitely, especially the one British holdover, Alexander Hanson, who plays Fredrik Egerman, Desirée’s old love interest.

Though Mr. Nunn’s production of "A Little Night Music" is much less impressive than it might be, it is introducing a whole new generation of theatergoers to the genius of Sondheim, and that is not a bad thing.

Bernard Carragher lives in New York and covers the arts and entertainment.