Star power seems to be the rule this season on Broadway. So whatever it takes for Broadway audiences to once again appreciate the pleasures of “A Little Night Music,” there is no doubt that Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury provide additional and considerable luster. Together they make a formidable contribution. There is no doubt that the Stephen Sondheim (score) - Hugh Wheeler (book) musical is a treasure. Based on Ingmar Bergman’s film, “Smiles of a Summer Night,” this chamber music-styled opus may be one of the most invitingly intimate forays into a soiree the American musical theater has ever embraced. Although the New York City Opera included it in its repertoire in 1990, “A Little Night Music” hasn’t been seen on Broadway since its original run in 1973.
This scaled-down production, as originally conceived for the Menier Chocolate Factory of London under the direction of Trevor Nunn, has been set down like a precious jewel in the Walter Kerr Theater. That it manages to sparkle without benefit of the lavish decor that originally framed the musical says a lot for Nunn’s graceful staging and the delicate touches of choreography provided by Lynne Page. This is not to imply that the wall of large opaque mirrors and the handsome but subdued period costumes as created by designer David Farley enhanced by Harley T. A. Kemp’s dreamy lighting is not effective.
It doesn’t take but a few turns of a waltz to become involved in the romantic entanglements of a group of leisure class citizens in turn-of-the-century Sweden. Sondheim’s waltz-intoxicated music and wit-enveloped lyrics cast a spell on this sophisticated fairy tale that will never be diminished. The musical’s flirtatious and melancholy moods are treated both headily and delicately by all the artists involved.
A vocal quintet offers the lilting prelude that introduces the amorously pressed characters. Given the classic and unforgettable “Send in the Clowns,” the score, like the night itself, smiles on the many faces of love. The plight of a middle-aged widowed lawyer recently married to an 18-year-old virgin intent on remaining so is complicated by the return of an old flame, and a son hopelessly in love with his stepmother. These affairs of the heart, all beating in three-quarter time, are ultimately resolved with continental aplomb.
Angela Lansbury plays Madame Armfeldt to autocratic/ aristocratic perfection. As the puffy, powdered relic, who has numbered kings among her lovers, her performance is not only carefully modulated but also carefully calculated to serve as a coup de theatre. For Lansbury, whose unprecedented award-winning career has spanned more than 60 years, this role is for us a tasty encore to her Tony Award-winning triumph last season in Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit.” Dare we hope for more?
The radiant Catherine Zeta-Jones, who won the Academy Award for her performance of Velma in the screen adaptation of the Broadway musical “Chicago,” is making a stunning Broadway debut. No stranger to the stage, Jones began her career in London starring in “42nd Street.” She gives a richly defined almost comical performance as Desiree, the sensual actress in Fredrik’s past and now present. Notwithstanding her breathtaking beauty, Jones has a fine and gently husky voice and gives a performance that is tantalizingly Carmen-esque. She certainly makes Desiree live up to her name.
Alexander Hanson is suave and excellent as Fredrik Egerman, the role he played in the Menier Chocolate Factory production. Hanson carries his frustrations around with disarming charm as the lawyer in search of his romanticized past. Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, who is also making his Broadway debut, is terrific as the highly strung, impetuous, and clumsy Henrik, the divinity student torn between his passion for Martin Luther and Anne (Ramona Mallory), the child bride. Leighann Larkin, as the promiscuous maid, Petra, gave her lusty all to her one song, “The Miller’s Son.” Other fine characterizations are turned in by Aaron Lazar, as the jealous Count, and Erin Davie, as his compromised but resourceful wife. What more can you say about “A Little Night Music” than that it leaves you wanting more. ****
“A Little Night Music,” Walter Kerr Theater, 219 West 48th Street. $52 to $137. 212-239-6200.