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2/11/10
A Little Night Music Gets “Little”
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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).

A Little Night Music with Hanson and Zeta JonesIt 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.

  • lee hipius

    I saw the Wow! version on stage and the memory lingers on. If one loves Sondheim’s music, then perhaps this scaled-down version may suffice, along with the actors. I have been a fan of Angela Lansbury since way back when, and I may be enticed to get to the theater to see her in this version.

  • Jon Morehouse

    Though smaller in scale,this production is not small in heart. Actually, it focuses more on character emotion while the music underscores with flowing waltzes and the entire story becomes a little jewel where direction, lighting, set, music and acting gel perfectly. Miss Lansbury’s interpretation is more tongue-in-cheek and done with a wink rather than haughtiness. It plays for comedy which is very necessary in a story that could easily become labored. The voices are glorious, especially the quintet.
    Leigh Ann Larken rocks as Petra and easily steals the show with her glorious moment “The Miller’s Son.” Catherine Zeta Jones sings her “Send in the Clowns” fighting tears that wins the audience completely. This show should not be missed.

  • Rick Goodwin

    I enjoyed the production, though there were more than enough reasons on display at the Walter Kerr that could easily lead one to dislike this revival. The negatives? The tiny “orchestra,” the unimaginative and confining set, the lighting (the sun may not set in this show, but it was definitely very cloudy up there on stage), the direction, and a number of the performances, the worst being Ramona Mallory (we may be annoyed by the character Anne, but we shouldn’t want her to come to physical harm early in Act One) and Hunter Ryan Herdlicka (a performance worthy of a third-rate high school production and he can’t sing!!!). But then there is that score, which still soars with only a few instruments, and Zeta-Jones, Hanson and Lansbury, all of whom make it work. Kudos also to Katheryn Leigh Doherty, whom I saw play Fredericka. She more than held her own and was superior to many on that stage. It’s not what it could have been, but it still had its merits and, if you are a fan of Sondheim, Zeta-Joones and/or Lansbury, probably worth the price of admission.

  • Rick Goodwin

    I enjoyed the production, though there were more than enough reasons on display at the Walter Kerr that could easily lead one to dislike this revival. The negatives? The tiny “orchestra,” the unimaginative and confining set, the lighting (the sun may not set in this show, but it was definitely very cloudy up there on stage), the direction, and a number of the performances, the worst being Ramona Mallory (we may be annoyed by the character Anne, but we shouldn’t want her to come to physical harm early in Act One) and Hunter Ryan Herdlicka (a performance worthy of a third-rate high school production and he can’t sing!!!). But then there is that score, which still soars with only a few instruments, and Zeta-Jones, Hanson and Lansbury, all of whom make it work. Kudos also to Katheryn Leigh Doherty, whom I saw play Fredericka. She more than held her own and was superior to many on that stage. It’s not what it could have been, but it still had its merits and, if you are a fan of Sondheim, Zeta-Jones and/or Lansbury, probably worth the price of admission.

  • Lawrence Miller

    I attended the performance “cold” not having read anything about the new production, but familiar with the original Broadway an London productions. After the first few songs, it dawned on me that the orchestra numbered only a few pieces. This minimalist version bothered me, because it doesn’t do Sondheim’s music justice. Especially during Bring In The Clowns, that has a section where the music comes “up with a swell.” Well, it’s hard to do that with only a few strings and an oboe. There was certainly something lost there. But all in all, I thought the arrangements interesting considering what few instruments they had to work with. Catherine Zeta-Jones gave a wonderful performance. I was impressed with her voice. I didn’t care for Ms. Lansbury’s interpretation. I’m used to Hermione Gingold. Leigh Ann Larkin as Petra was great! I never cared for The Miller’s Son, but she breathed new life into that number for me and it was one of the best in the entire show. Alexander Hanson was also very good. Everything seemed pared back and scaled down. The seats in the theatre are tiny and crammed together, the sets were minimalist, the orchestra…. the only thing big was the ticket price at $138. It was an injoyable evening, but one that could have been made even more enjoyable with a larger orchestra and bigger sets.

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