Saturday, January 9, 2010

Theater Review: A Little Night Music

On the occasion of Stephen Sondheim’s 70th birthday in 2000, Frank Rich, in an article for the New York Times, wrote that the composer-lyricist “is now the greatest and perhaps best known artist in the American theater.” When — well into Rich’s interview — Sondheim is asked whether he remembers the first opening night he attended, the reply came swiftly. Sondheim was 15 when he was invited by Oscar Hammerstein to the opening in New Haven of Carousel, a show that Hammerstein, the lad’s mentor, wrote with Richard Rodgers. The boy, who lived in Bucks County, was tutored by Hammerstein on the art of writing lyrics. But while the master, who always remained a father figure, wrote about birds, enchanted evenings and “snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes,” the protege eventually became focused on murderous barbers, “losing my mind” and “a little death.”

“Every Day Aa Little Death” is, of course, a musical number from A Little Night Music, on the boards now at New York’s Walter Kerr Theater. Trevor Nunn’s fine Broadway revival, which has a book by Hugh Wheeler, is based on the Ingmar Bergman film, Smiles of a Summer Night. The musical play, a sort of fairy tale with music and lyrics by Sondheim, deals with love and lovers and bungled relationships. And like other Sondheim revivals (Sweeney Todd in 2005, Company in 2006 and Sunday in the Park with George in 2008), this is a scaled-down production. Unlike the original staging of “Night Music,” which had lavish sets (designed by Boris Aronson), David Farley’s invention of movable peppered, sliding plywood panels in the current mounting is colorless but serviceable.

The musical’s plot centers around Desirée Armfeldt (Catherine Zeta-Jones), an actress who is determined to marry Fredrik Egerman (Alexander Hanson), an attorney and the father of her son, Henrik (Hunter Ryan Herdlicka); however, she discovers that Fredrik has recently married an 18-year-old (Romona Mallory). And to make matters worse, the son has a crush on his young stepmother, a puerile, unhinged girl who refuses to consummate the marriage. All of this does not prevent Henrik from soothing his unrealized hopes by playing the cello or coupling with the maid, Petra (Leigh Ann Larkin).

Desirée decides that the country estate, where her dispassionate mother, Madame Armfeldt (Angela Lansbury) resides, might be the best place for everyone to spend the weekend. Madame Armfeldt, who is brought on stage in a wheelchair, enjoys to philosophically reflect on her vibrant, varied and active past: “Liaisons! What’s happened to them,/Liasons today?/Disgraceful!/What’s become of them/Hardly pay their shoddy way.” She complains about the rampant lack of taste. “Where’s passion in the art,/Where’s craft?/...What once was a gown with train/Is now just a simple frock,/What once was a sumptuous feast/Is figs./No not even figs — raisons.” Lansbury is superb here. We benefit, of course, from the vitality, the freshness, the skill that she brings to the dialogue, as well as to Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics. Since great actors also perform when they are not speaking, even the silences between lines here are pregnant with wit, with significance.

Madame Armfeldt finally, reluctantly consents to having invited guests for the weekend. The invitations are sent out; however, tension builds when Desirée’s current lover, a jealous, egotistical, hotheaded Count (Aaron Lazar) and his wife (Erin Davis) decide to show up, too. This leads to the first act’s musical finale, “A Weekend in the Country,” which provides the play’s most colorful and exciting showcase for the cast. It’s a vibrant, invigorating number, but it feels slightly dwarfed compared to the original, full-blown version.

A memorable moment occurs three-quarters into the second act. Zeta-Jones, who looks incredibly gorgeous on stage, delivers the show’s most famous number, “Send in the Clowns.” It is here, more than anywhere else, where she displays a hopeless vulnerability behind that cheerful front. This is a woman who knows that time is passing too quickly, that the final curtain is imminent: “Isn’t it rich?/Isn’t it queer/Losing my timing this late/In my career?” We know that theater can often be, in Sondheim’s words from another show, “mystical, magical.” During my many years as a theatergoer, I’ve seen physically unattractive actresses whose talent, grace and allurement made you believe for the moment that they were beautiful. And then there’s Catherine Zeta-Jones, who appears to make the spotlight redundant.