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A CurtainUp Review
A Little Night Music

A Little Night Music's New Desirée and Madame Armfeldt

Little Night Music Broadway Transfer Review (includes song list)
London Review
Elaine Stritch and Bernadette Peters
Elaine Stritch & Bernardine Peters the current Madame Armfeldt and Desirée
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Star power was the rule this season on Broadway. So who would dare to complain that Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury were able to lure a new generation to the sublime pleasures of A Little Night Music? What a pleasure it is to say that their respective replacements Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch are bringing an even more irresistible luster as well as a refreshingly different dramatic resonance to this musical masterpiece by Stephen Sondheim (score) and Hugh Wheeler (book). If there ever was a more humorously compatible pairing of personalities, I don't know about it. I don't think it outrageous to consider how much Peters and Stritch unwittingly compliment each other; the wittily imperious been-there-done-that mother and her winsomely impetuous been-there and still-doing-it daughter. The best news is that Peters and Stritch are first class actors particularly relishing the richness of the text.

Based on Ingmar Bergman's film, Smiles of a Summer Night, this 1973 chamber music-styled opus may be one of the most invitingly intimate forays into a soiree the American musical theater has ever embraced. Without dwelling on the diminished production values of this show which hasn't been seen on Broadway since its original run in 1973, the two value-added forces Peters and Stritch make a visit to the Walter Kerr Theatre almost an obligation.

Whether she always chooses the right vehicle or not, Peters is one of those iconic musical theatre stars who can be counted on to sparkle on stage like a precious jewel. It doesn't matter that she has had to wait too long to be linked again with a Sondheim score (Sunday in the Park With George, in 1984); what matters is that she is creating a freshly considered Desirée. a bit flighty, incurably flirtatious, but unmistakably vulnerable. I don't believe Peters has an equal when it comes to making us wipe away tears only minutes after she has us laughing at the tactics she employs handling the two men in her life.

Why wouldn't we expect that Peters would take a very different approach than did Zeta-Jones in defining Desirée as the sensual actress who wants to close a romantic chapter with a dragoon and at the same time rekindle a relationship with Fredrik, a former lover? While I will submit that Peters' musical instincts are virtually flawless in regard to Sondheim's score, there are areas within the plot when her playfulness seems a little forced and inconsistent, pushing a little hard to create an effective comical moment. But I have no doubt that she will relax more in these moments as the run continues.

It was easy to simply feel the joy of her presence right from her unobtrusive entrance amongst the ensemble. How easy she makes it for us to be captivated by her and all those apricot tinted curls bobbing atop her head as she takes part in a few turns of the opening waltz. As surely as Sondheim's waltz-intoxicated music and wit-enveloped lyrics cast a spell on this sophisticated fairy tale, so does Peters. It is hard not to anticipate her singing Desirée's defining moment "Send in the Clowns." I'll advise you to hold back your tears long enough to realize that you are hearing this ravishing song interpreted for the first time as the ultimate heartbreaker.

Far be it from Elaine Stritch to be intimidated by playing the autocratic/aristocratic Madame Arnfeldt, Desirée's willful, disapproving mother. Perhaps Stritch comes to the role armed with a lot of baggage that in some respects makes her instinctively as cannily wise and world-weary as her character. Aside from Elaine Stritch At Liberty, the remarkably trenchant and entertaining one-woman show in which she candidly shared her personal trials amid numbers that recalled her extraordinary theatrical career, Stritch is first and foremost a superb actor.

Who cares if it is impossible not to make connections between Stritch's famously revealed personality and that of Madame Armfeldt whose brittle honesty and endearing blend of humor and petulance frame the more indulgent romantics of the musical. Stritch's Armfeldt is far from being simply the teetering, powdered relic who has numbered kings among her lovers; she is a woman whose lively wit, despite being confined to a wheelchair, serves as much as a source for her own amusement as it is for ours. It is also clear in every line of Madame Armfeldt's famed aria "Liaisons, " that Stritch is drawing heavily and poignantly on a lifetime of them.

Let's not forget that we are also committed to be involved in the romantic entanglements of a group of leisure class citizens in turn-of-the-century Sweden. The musical's flirtatious and melancholy moods are treated both headily and delicately by all the artists involved.

I am also more impressed than I was initially with the supporting cast, all of whom have settled beautifully into their roles. Alexander Hanson is still suave and excellent as Fredrik Egerman. He carries his frustrations around with disarming élan as the lawyer in search of his romanticized past. What more can you say about A Little Night Music than that it leaves you wanting the summer night to continue smiling.

Production Notes remain per Elyse Sommer's review below.

A Little Night Music Transfers from the Menier Chocolate Factory to Broadway With Just one Cast Holdover

London Review
Isn't it rich? Isn't it queer?
Losing my timing this late In my career?
And where are the clowns?
There ought to be clowns.
Well maybe next year. . .
— from" Bring in the Clowns."
Angela Lansbury & Catherine Zeta-Jones
Angela Lansbury & Catherine Zeta-Jones
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
The Walter Kerr isn't one of Broadway's biggest houses, but no one would call it intimate, especially since seats are currently even being sold for its very high up second balcony. And so, to address our London critic Lizzie Loveridge's concern (see review re-posted below), Stephen Sondheim's wonderful waltzing musical has not found another home where it could retain the up close intimacy of the tiny Menier Chocolate Factory where she saw it. And the transfer of this minimalist A Little Night Music, the first ever on Broadway since it's more lavishly staged, 601-performance initial run, does prompt wishes for a little more scenery and a somewhat more full-bodied orchestra.

But look at it this way: Yearnings for days before scaled down staging weren't so fashionably necessary, put you right on the same page with Madame Armfeldt. Just think of her plaintive "Liaison" in which she compares the present with the days of her youth (" . . .What once was a villa at least/Is digs/ What once was a gown with train/Is now a simple little frock. . ."). And isn't this model for unique Class A musical theater all about remembering and regrets?

As book writer Hugh Wheeler saw to it that despite all their losses and bad choices the show's various couples had reason to wind up with a celebratory waltz, so there's as much to celebrate about this production's trip from London to New York as there is to kvetch about. For starters, the orchestrations for the small orchestra (8 musicians) are quite good and insure that Sondheim's brilliant lyrics come across loud and clear. Best of all, the recasting has added some genuine stardust with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury on board as the leading ladies.

Zeta-Jones is a movie star making her Broadway debut, though she did start out on London stages and was a terrific Velma Kelly in the movie version of the long running hit Chicago. She's a gorgeous, sexy Desirée who radiates warmth and self-assurance. She makes the most of her role's comic opportunities, as in her sharply timed "And this is my daughter" when Fredrik introduces her to his teen-aged wife. As for her singing, it's just fine. Best of all, you won't be disappointed with her interpretation of "Bring in the Clowns."

Lansbury, is at 84-years-young one of our national treasures. In the course of her 60 years on stage she has nabbed five well deserved Tonys and may well make that an even half dozen this season.. Her performance as Madame Armfeldt is a triumphant answer to that lady's "Where's the art, where's craft?" At the performance I attended she was applauded going as well as coming, and no wonder. While she speaks more than she sings, every utterance deepens this portrait of a courtesan turned imperious grand dame.. Her pithy observations display an acute awareness of the diminishments of age and the impending visit of the Grim Reaper. And so, she wryly remarks that "to lose a lover or even a husband or two during the course of one's life can be vexing, but to lose one's teeth is a catastrophe." She tells the guests spending a weekend at her country estat e not to expect her best champagne because "I'm saving that for my funeral."

While "Silly People," a song never included before did not make it across the Pond, happily, leading man Alexander Hanson did. The handsome Brit partners as well with Zeta-Jones as he did with Hannah Waddingham. He's sophisticated though painfully flummoxed by his inability to bed his young wife, as evident in his delicious "Now" solo ("Removing her clothing/Would take me all day./And her subsequent loathing/Would turn me away--/Which eliminates B/and which leaves us with A").

Hanson's relaxed dealing with Desirée's jealous lover, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Aaaron Lazar) points to another cause for celebrating the New York casting. Lazar is a superb singer and plays the dashing adulterer with just enough, but not too much, pomposity. The two men's "It Would Have Been Wonderful" is indeed wonderful.

Further additions to the plus side of the ledger are the Sondheimian Greek Chorus commentators (Stephen Buntrock, Jayne Paterson, Marisa McGowan, Kevin David Thomas and Betsy Morgan), as well as young Frederika Armfeldt. Katherine Leigh Doherty, who played the see-all, hear-all youngster at the performance I saw. Her taking on the Puck persona during the second act's Midsummer Night-like forest scene brings me to some of the more disappointing aspects of this revival, not the least of which are those skimpy birch trees which are likely to have the original production's designer Boris Aronson turning in his grave.

Disappointments in the cast start with Ramona Mallory. She is just too fluttery, silly and shrill as the virginal Anne, though one could easily expect otherwise since her mother played the same part originally. Erin Davie also isn't quite right as Anne's friend and the adulterous Count's wife.

Having young Hunter Ryan Herdlicka's Henrik Egerman as the first person on stage and playing the cello is a nice touch to set the tone for the hamber-sized orchestra's playing. However, Herdlicka fails to make a strong impression. The very opposite can be said for Leigh Ann Larkin's Petra, the sexy maid who turns an acceptable touch of vulgarity into excess. This probably accounts for the fact that her penultimate number "The Miller's Song," a good song which now somehow seems not to belong in the show.

To end on a positive note, A Little Night Music isn't big on dancing, but the waltzing bookends everything. The changing partners signal the mistake-rife couplings at the beginning and the more positive reshuffling at the end. Sure Mr. Nunn has perhaps taken the "little" and "night" of the title a bit too seriously, in terms of scenery and some of the lighting, but any Sondheim musical, and this one especially, is too big on pleasurable, sophisticated lyrics and music to miss.

For some videos of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury go here. And to read the London review go here.

A Little Night Music Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler, suggested by a film by Ingmar Bergman;
Originally produced and directed on Broadway by Harold Prince
Directed by Trevor Nunn ""Choreography by Lynne Page
Cast: Catherine Zeta-Jones (Desirée Armfeldt), Angela Lansbury (Madame Armfeldt), Alexander Hanson (Fredrik Egerman), Erin Davie (Countess Charlotte Malcolm), Leigh Ann Larkin (Petra), Hunter Ryan Herdlicka (Henrik Egerman), Ramona Mallory (Anne Egerman) and Aaron Lazar (Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm); also Stephen Buntrock (Mr. Linquist), Jaye Paterson (Mrs. Nordstrom), Marisa McGowan (Mrs. Anderson), Kevin David Thomas (Mr. Erlanson) and Betsy Morgan (Mrs. Segstrom)
Music supervision: Caroline Humphris
Sets and costumes by David Farley
Lighting by Hartley T A Kemp
Sound: Dan Moses Schreier and Gareth Owen
Wig and hair design: Paul Huntley
Makeup design: Angelina Avallone Stage manager: Ira Mon
Music direction: Tom Murray
Orchestrations:y Jason Carr
Music coordinator: John Miller
Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes with intermission
Walter Kerr Theater, 219 West 48th Street, Manhattan; (212) 239-6200. Closing when Zeta Jones and Lansbury's contracts end-- June 20, 2010
Musical Numbers
Act One
  • Overture/ - Mr. Lindquist, Mrs. Nordstrom, Mrs. Anderssen, Mr. Erlanson and Mrs. Segstrom
  • Night Waltz - Company
  • Now - Fredrik
  • Later - Henrik
  • Soon - Anne, Henrik, Fredrik
  • The Glamorous Life - Fredrike, Desirée, Madame Armfeldt, Mrs Nordstrom, Mrs Segstrom, Mrs Anderssen, Mr Lindquist, Mr Erlanson
  • Remember? - Mr Lindquist, Mrs Nordstrom, Mrs Segstrom, Mr Erlanson
  • You Must Meet My Wife- Fredrik, Desirée
  • Liaisons - Madame Armfeldt
  • In Praise of Women - Carl-Magnus
  • Every Day A Little Death - Charlotte, Anne
  • A Weekend in the Country - The Company
Act Two
  • The Sun Won't Set - Mrs Anderssen, Mrs Nordstrom, Mrs Segstrom, Mr Lindquist, Mr Erlanson
  • It Would Have Been Wonderful - Fredrik, Carl-Magnus
  • Night Waltz II - Mrs. Nordstrom, Mr. Erlanson, Mr. Lindquist, Mrs. Segstrom and Mrs. Anderssen
  • Perpetual Anticipation - Mrs Anderssen, Mrs Nordstrom, Mrs Segstrom
  • Send in the Clowns: Desirée
  • The Miller's Son: Petra
  • Finale - The Company

London Review of A Little Night Music

She lightens my sadness,
She livens my days,
She bursts with a kind of madness
My well-ordered ways.
My happiest mistake, the ache of my life.
You must meet my wife.

— Fredrik
A Little Night Music
Alexander Hanson as Fredrik and Hannah Waddingham as Desirée
(Photo: Catherine Ashmore)
Watching a musical at London's Menier is like being in the drawing room with the singers. Sir Trevor Nunn comes to this little theatre with the big reputation to direct that favoured Sondheim musical, A Little Night Music. With most of the critics still reeling from Judi Dench's 1996 performance at the National Theatre: her Send in the Clowns was apparently sung with a cracked voice but deeply emotional for all that, I was in the minority in not having seen that production. I have watched the tape of La Dench and can assure you that Hannah Waddingham's rendition is more musical.

What the intimacy of the production does is to ensure the clarity of every word of Sondheim's beautiful lyrics. No wonder he has such a cultured following. His skill with words is humbling and inspiring. Fortunately this is a musical with almost no choreography, just a waltz at the beginning so there is never the impression of being cramped. The waltz is there to show us the changing couples as the cast bring out the pain of so many disastrous marriages in Hugh Wheeler's book taken from the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night. There is a song by Sondheim which hasn't been included in a previous production. It's sung by Frid the manservant and called "Silly People" who sees the complications surrounding sex in the upper classes and thinks they are foolish, "crying in their teacups . . . don't know what they want."

Alexander Hanson plays Fredrik, the middle aged lawyer with a silvered beard, married to Anne who less than half his age will not allow him to consummate their eleven month old marriage. Anne is played by Jessie Buckley, the runner up on the reality television show to cast Nancy in Oliver! She is delightful, a good singer and has instinctive acting ability so Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber may well think the public have chosen the wrong girl. Of course we know that Fredrik, despite his protestations to the contrary, has probably made a bad choice of wife when he renews his dalliance with the lovely actress Desirée Armfeldt (Hannah Waddingham). Maureen Lipman is Madam Armfeldt, in a wheel chair but mentally alert, as sharp as a pin in fact, and responsible for bringing up her granddaughter Fredrika (Holly Hallam/Grace Link).

There is comedy as well as all this marital unhappiness. When Fredrick takes his new wife for a much wished for visit to the theatre, the tensions in the marriage result in their leaving before the end. When in the second act he introduces his wife to Desirée saying, "This is my wife" Desirée counters with "And this is my daughter," thus drawing a parallel between the relative age of Anne and Fredrika. Alistair Robins as the rather dim Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm is Desirée's dragoon lover and the butt of much of the comedy. The Countess Charlotte (Kelly Price), his wife, is a contemporary of Anne's and her song "Every Day A Little Death" is a bittersweet and heartfelt account of her love for her unfaithful husband, "I'm before him on my knees/And he kisses me/He assumes I'll lose my reason/And I do/Men are stupid/Men are vain/Love's disgusting/Love's insane/ A humiliating business."

The set is a series of doors with silvered glass pitted by time with odd items of period furniture, a bed, a chaise longue. The dresses are divine, cream creations in silk and damask and lace with fine corsets and bustles as are the women's wigs. The characterisations are finely judged as Trevor Nunn shows his expertise in this lovely show. When word gets out, A Little Night Music will undoubtedly sell out. In a first for this theatre, the seats are now numbered and pre-allocated. The only issue will be where can it transfer to and retain this intimacy?

Lizzie Loveridge reviewed the show on 6th December 2008 at the Menier Chocolate Factory where it played through 8th March 2009. The London cast was headed by Alexander Hanson, Hannah Waddingham, Maureen Lipman; with Gabriel Vick, Lynden Edwards, Charlotte Page, Laura Armstrong, John Addison, Nicola Sloane, Holly Hallam/Grace Link, Jeremy Finchy, Jessie Buckley, Kaisa Hammarlund, Alistair Robins, Kelly Price
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Leonard Maltin's 2008 Movie Guide


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