A Little Night Music is a little more “little” this time around. Trevor Nunn’s scaled down version of Stephen Sondheim’s 1973 musical (currently running at the Walter Kerr Theatre) features a mere eight musicians in the “orchestra” pit. In contrast, the first (and only previous) Broadway production boasted a band of 25.
This is the main problem with this problematic production—it renders one of Sondheim’s most musical musicals as a play with occasional songs. This paring down of Sondheim is all the rage these days, with Sweeney Todd, Company, and Sunday in the Park, all seen on Broadway recently in minimalist stagings. Sometimes they work (Sweeney) sometimes not (Sunday) but it’s important to note that this wasn’t always the case. In the 1990’s the fashion was to go big with Sondheim: the last time Night Music was seen in Manhattan was in a grand, lavish production at New York City Opera (no skimping on the orchestra there).
Those who have heard Sondheim’s shows on record or in theaters with top rate orchestras are the ones who’ve been grumbling the loudest about Nunn’s production. Indeed this is not A Little Night Music for purists: the acting is often crude, the singing is generally less than precise, and the staging is rarely inspired. Conventional wisdom is that the Tony-winning 1973 production was all of those things and more (it inspired Hollywood to turn it into a film starring Elizabeth Taylor) but it is no longer viewable—either for purists or newcomers.
The good news about the current production (imported from London’s Menier Chocolate Factory) is that despite its problems, it still manages to entertain. This is because of the show’s inherent strengths: juicy characters, great melodies, and a well-structured plot (courtesy of Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night, which the show is based on).
It doesn’t hurt that all three of the leads, while not perfect, are a delight to watch. Catherine Zeta-Jones makes a promising Broadway debut as the aging actress, Desirée Armfeldt. The Welsh star has real stage chops and her singing isn’t bad either. Her “Send in the Clowns” isn’t one for the ages, but it works. It helps that she has real chemistry with her co-star Alexander Hanson, who plays Desirée’s lover Fredrik Egerman. Hanson, like Zeta-Jones, isn’t a first rate singer, but he brings warmth and humor to everything in the role, including the music.
The supporting cast is decidedly less engaging than these two—with the exception of Angela Lansbury as Desirée’s mother. Lansbury is not quite as perfect in the role as everyone wishes—hearing her sing “Liaisons” doesn’t quite work (even if it is a joy to hear her sing Sondheim again) because its hard to think of Jessica Fletcher as someone who slept around in her youth—but in all her spoken scenes, the 84-year old actress steals the show.
Lansbury, Hanson and Zeta-Jones all make this littler Night Music worth seeing—even if the tiny orchestra ensures that it’s rarely worth hearing.
Image: Alexander Hason as Fredrik Egerman & Catherine Zeta-Jones as Desirée Armfeldt in A Little Night Music. Photo by Joan Marcus.