A Little Night Music
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
December 16, 2009
Until the other night, A Little Night Music was the only major Sondheim work that I had never seen. So perhaps that's the reason that when I finally did see it, in the current Broadway revival at the Walter Kerr Theatre, it seemed to me to be the best of his works. Perhaps, but probably not. A Little Night Music has something that none of the other Sondheim classics has: a strong, tender love story between two flawed but interesting adults whom we come to care about and root for as the show progresses. And you know what? That kind of involvement carries an audience a very long way. This is a very flawed production, but I still left it feeling satisfied, and I have no compunction in recommending it to those in search of—to steal a phrase from the play—something coherent within a Broadway musical.
A Little Night Music concerns a lawyer named Fredrik Egerman who, within the past year, has married a young, simple girl named Anne, someone he watched grow up, someone who, apparently feeling sorry for him and in a bid to feel grown up herself, consented to marry him after his wife died. Their marriage remains unconsummated, although Fredrik belives himself to be deeply in love. Complicating matters is his son, Henrik, 20, studying at a seminary and obviously in love with Anne himself. Completing the Egerman household is Anne's randy maid, Petra.
At the very beginning of the story, Fredrik announces that he is taking Anne to the theatre this evening, to see a play starring Desiree Armfeldt. When, during his afternoon nap, Fredrik says the name "Desiree" in his sleep, Anne starts to become alarmed. It turns out that this presumably glamorous star was once Fredrik's lover. The two wind up reuniting, but are caught in flagrante delicto by Desiree's current paramour, an insanely jealous dragoon called Count Carl-Magnus. Nevertheless, Desiree decides to invite Fredrik to spend the weekend with her and her mother and her daughter at her mother's country estate. Anne is advised by Carl-Magnus's wife (an old friend) to go, so that her innocence and youth (in contrast with Desiree's more mature charms) will seal Fredrik's devotion to her. The Count and Countess wind up crashing the weekend party as well. Act Two—a farce that unfolds to reveal coherence hidden within—ensues.
Hugh Wheeler's book takes a while to rev up, but when it hits its stride in the second act, it is glorious. Sondheim's score—the bit of the show I knew going in—is a marvel as well. I discovered that it consists, in its first part, almost entirely of songs of calculation: Fredrik the lawyer sings of the various modus operandi he might employ to seduce his wife and Anne chirps bravely but manipulatively of how she will put him off; even Desiree's mother, a formidable former courtesan of apparently unlimited means, gets a delicious song ("Liaisons") in which she enumerates her illicit but profitable triumphs with the passion of an Enron accountant. There's but one moment of honesty in the songs in Act One, and even then it's shrouded in self-deception: the Countess's doleful paean to ambivalent devotion, "Every Day a Little Death."
And then, in Act Two, artifice is stripped away and characters sing about what's real. Desiree gets the most famous song in the score (nay, the most famous song Sondheim's ever written), the ravishing "Send in the Clowns." And that's followed shortly by the show's most direct statement of purpose, "The Miller's Son," assigned, interestingly, to the minor character Petra, just after she's made love with Mme. Armfeldt's valet in the hayloft:
There are mouths to be kissed
Before mouths to be fed,
And there's many a tryst
And there's many a bed,
There's a lot I'll have missed
But I'll not have been dead
When I die!
And a person should celebrate everything
Woven throughout the main songs are snippets of two waltzes, "Remember" and "The Sun Won't Set," sung by a quintet of observers/neighbors/servants. They sing what the characters think, long for, and learn. The score is gorgeous and helps define the emotional bond between Desiree and Fredrik in that ineffable way that only music can.
So, it is richly rewarding to at last get to see this lovely, intelligent show unfold before my eyes on a Broadway stage. Now if only the parts were worthy of this remarkable whole! Unfortunately, this production, directed by Trevor Nunn and based on one he did at the intimate Menier Chocolate Factory in London a year ago, fails to deliver on most fronts. The main failing here is the presentation of the music. Music director Tom Murray leads a tiny band of eight musicians, and they never provide the lush sound that this show needs and deserves. (Check out Lincoln Center's South Pacific if you're not sure what I'm talking about.) Most of the cast sings—well, not poorly, but oddly: words are pronounced strangely and phrased weirdly, and some of the songs are more spoken than sung. And the tempo is disturbingly sluggish.
David Farley's set—minimal in the extreme—makes it difficult to tell where things are taking place, at least in Act One. Farley's costumes work well, though, and Hartley T.A. Kemp's lighting rises brilliantly to the occasion of "Send in the Clowns"—that scene, in Desiree's bedroom, is stunning.
The cast is wildly uneven. The indomitable and legendary Angela Lansbury charms throughout as Mme. Armfeldt, but that didn't keep me from recognizing that she's not particularly well cast in this role of a world-class cynic; she's just too sunny a presence to completely pull it off. But Catherine Zeta-Jones turns out to be entirely suited to the part of Desiree. She is spectacularly beautiful, and elegant (though she seems to have been directed to play against her inner stateliness at times). She really seems to understand this woman: not a past-her-prime monstre sacre but rather a woman facing middle age with equal parts fear and guts, someone who has figured out what she wants and needs and now has to figure out how to get it. Zeta-Jones's performance of "Send in the Clowns" is unquestionably the emotional highpoint of the piece.
And the others on stage? Except for Katherine Leigh Doherty, who alternates with Keaton Whittaker as Desiree's young daughter Fredrika, no one comes close to approaching Zeta-Jones and Lansbury. How unfortunate!—this music and this book deserve actors who can do it justice, and I know that such actors can be found by the dozens in New York City, though sadly not on the stage of the Walter Kerr at this moment.
So, it's a mixed bag, this Little Night Music, but one I am very glad to have experienced. This is not a definitive rendering of the show, but the show is, I feel, one of the very best ever created within the genre of the American musical play.