Star power was the rule this season on Broadway. So who would dare to complain that Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury were able to lure a new generation to the sublime pleasures of “A Little Night Music?” What a pleasure it is to say that their respective replacements, Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch, are bringing an even more irresistible luster as well as a refreshingly different dramatic resonance to this musical masterpiece by Stephen Sondheim (score) and Hugh Wheeler (book). If there ever was a more warmly and humorously compatible pairing of personalities, I don’t know about it. I don’t think it outrageous to consider how much Peters and Stritch complement each other; the wittily imperious been-there-done-that mother and her winsomely impetuous been-there and still-doing-it daughter. The best news is that Peters and Stritch are first class actors who are relishing the richness of the text.
Based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film, “Smiles of a Summer Night,” this 1973 chamber music-styled opus may be one of the most invitingly intimate forays into a soiree the American musical theater has ever embraced. Without dwelling on the diminished production values of this show, which hasn’t been seen on Broadway since its original run in 1973, the two value-added forces Peters and Stritch make a visit to the Walter Kerr Theater almost an obligation.
Whether she always chooses the right vehicle or not, Peters is one of those iconic musical theater stars who can be counted on to sparkle on stage like a precious jewel. It doesn’t matter that she has had to wait too long to be linked again with a Sondheim score (“Sunday in the Park With George,” in 1984); what matters is that she is creating a freshly considered Desiree, a bit flighty, incurably flirtatious, but unmistakably vulnerable. I don’t believe Peters has an equal when it comes to making us wipe away tears only minutes after she has us laughing at the tactics she employs handling the two men in her life.
Why wouldn’t we expect that Peters would take a very different approach than did Zeta-Jones in defining Desiree as the sensual actress who wants to close a romantic chapter with a dragoon and at the same time rekindle a relationship with Fredrik, a former lover? While I will submit that Peters’ musical instincts are virtually flawless in regard to Sondheim’s score, there are areas within the plot when her playfulness seems a little forced and inconsistent, pushing a little hard to create an effective comical moment. But I have no doubt that she will relax more in these moments as the run continues.
It was easy to simply feel the joy of her presence right from her unobtrusive entrance amongst the ensemble. How easy she makes it for us to be captivated by her and all those apricot tinted curls bobbing atop her head as she takes part in a few turns of the opening waltz. As surely as Sondheim’s waltz-intoxicated music and wit-enveloped lyrics cast a spell on this sophisticated fairy tale, so does Peters. It is hard not to anticipate her singing Desiree’s defining moment “Send in the Clowns.” I’ll advise you to hold back your tears long enough to realize that you are hearing this ravishing song interpreted for the first time as the ultimate heartbreaker.
Far be it from Elaine Stritch to be intimidated by playing the autocratic/aristocratic Madame Arnfeldt, Desiree’s willful, disapproving mother. Perhaps Stritch comes to the role armed with a lot of baggage that in some respects makes her instinctively as cannily wise and world-weary as her character. Stritch is first and foremost a superb actor.
Who cares if it is impossible not to make connections between Stritch’s famously revealed personality and that of Madame Armfeldt, whose brittle honesty and endearing blend of humor and petulance frame the more indulgent romantics of the musical. Stritch’s Armfeldt is far from being simply the teetering, powdered relic who has numbered kings among her lovers; she is a woman whose lively wit serves as much as a source for her own amusement as it is for ours. It is also clear in every line of Madame Armfeldt’s famed aria, “Liaisons,” that Stritch is drawing heavily and poignantly on a lifetime of them.
Let’s not forget that we are also pleasurably involved in the romantic entanglements of a group of leisure class citizens in turn-of-the-century Sweden. The musical’s flirtatious and melancholy moods are treated both headily and delicately by all the artists involved. The original supporting cast remains not only in tact, but better than ever.
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 elan as the lawyer in search of his romanticized past. Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, who is also making his Broadway debut, is more amusing than ever as the highly strung, impetuous, and clumsy Henrik, the divinity student torn between his passion for Martin Luther and Anne (a delightful performance by Ramona Mallory), the child bride. Leigh Ann Larkin, as the promiscuous maid Petra, continues to give her lusty all to her one song “The Miller’s Son.”
Other fine characterizations include Katherine McNamara as Fredrika Armfeldt, Aaron Lazar, as the jealous Count and Erin Davie, as his compromised but resourceful wife. On a second visit, I was a bit more inclined to admire the curved wall of opaque mirrors and the handsome, subdued period costumes as created by designer David Farley, all enhanced by Harley T. A. Kemp’s dreamy lighting. What more can you say about “A Little Night Music” than that it leaves you wanting the summer night to continue smiling. ****
“A Little Night Music,” Walter Kerr Theater, 219 West 48th Street. $52 to $127. 212-239-6200.