Call it half a smile.
The first Broadway revival of "A Little Night Music," the enchanting, moonstruck musical based on the Ingmar Bergman film "Smiles of a Summer Night," is a curious affair. There are some lovely moments, most of them supplied by Angela Lansbury, but too much of this adult, sophisticated show, which opened Sunday at the Walter Kerr Theatre, seems forced, boisterous and a little crude.
Which is a shame since Stephen Sondheim's waltz-infused score, among his very best, is artfully integrated into Hugh Wheeler's bittersweet tale of generational attitudes toward life and love — young, middle-age and elderly.
Director Trevor Nunn has opted for a small, scenically spare, chamber-musical approach to the show, set in turn-of-the-last-century Sweden and dealing primarily with the amorous adventures of Desiree Armfeldt, a celebrated actress of the day.
She's played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, who is making her Broadway debut. The Oscar-winning performer is gorgeous, looking just right as this ripe, alluring woman who has never shirked from the way of all flesh.
Zeta-Jones has a throaty, sensuous voice which she uses to good, flirty effect. But her acting, particularly in the first act, seems overdone, too strenuously self-aware. She is much better in the musical's quieter scenes and shines in Act 2 during her rendition of the show's best-known song, "Send in the Clowns," a touching moment of grown-up introspection.
As Desiree's mother, the luminous Lansbury is a wonder. She is just about perfect as the worldly wise Madame Armfeldt, a woman who has tasted all that life has to offer and still enjoys the remembrances — and cynicism — that goes with it.
The 84-year-old actress does something extraordinary, too: her Madame Armfeldt progressively gets more frail as the evening progresses, subtly commenting on one of the musical's more profound themes — the mortality of all, no matter what their station in life. The aging process has never been more eloquently put on display.
The inspiration for this "A Little Night Music" was an even smaller production, also directed by Nunn, done at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London and its male lead, Alexander Hanson, as Desiree's one true love, has come to Broadway.
Hanson gives stalwart, gentlemanly support to the production's two leading ladies, and he plays Fredrik, the weary lawyer, with a just the right amount of knowing resignation.
As the narcissistic Count Carl-Magnus, Desiree's current lover, Aaron Lazar preens with peacock assurance, and he has the best voice — big and booming — in the cast. Erin Davie portrays his put-upon wife, and she delivers "Every Day a Little Death," Sondheim's most bitter brew of a song, with quiet, chilling resentment.
Where this production collapses is in the performances of the young people. True, they are supposed to be impetuous and, of course, foolish, but in this revival, Nunn has allowed them to become extravagantly cartoonish and unlikable.
Ramona Mallory's histrionic Anne, Fredrik's almost child bride, is saddled with a baby-doll voice. She is particularly grating, with Hunter Ryan Herdlicka's feverish Henrik, the lawyer's repressed son, close behind.
That sense of misplaced intensity can also be found in Leigh Ann Larkin's aggressive portrayal of Petra, the man-hungry maid. Her rendition of "The Miller's Son" almost seems superfluous, sort of a lower-class re-echo of Madame Armfeldt's philosophy of seizing the day.
One of the joys in "A Little Night Music" always has been a quintet of singers who serve as a kind of melodic Greek chorus to the action. Dressed in black, they swirl elegantly across the shallow Kerr stage, adding a welcome sense of movement to a story that doesn't require much choreography. Unfortunately, that sense of style is only fitfully present in this disappointing revival of "A Little Night Music."
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