A Little Night Music

Steven Sondheim and Angela Lansbury have successfully collaborated many times throughout their legendary careers and the success continues with Lansbury’s turn in the current revival of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. While the show clocks in a little long, it’s two hours and forty minutes, and runs slow here and there, Sondheim’s lovely score and Lansbury’s (and other cast members) performance make for a pleasant music-filled night (or day, if you saw a matinee, like I did!)

“Suggested” by the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night, …Night Music tells the story of a grand dame, Lansbury’s Madame Armfeldt, whose actress daughter, Desiree, played here by Catherine Zeta-Jones, is almost constantly on tour, enjoying men - regardless of their marital status. While in town, a former lover, Fredrik Egerman, comes to see her perform and later visits her backstage. Mr. Egerman happens to be married to an 18 year old virgin who can’t help but flirt with her step-son. After their tryst, Desiree’s other lover, the married Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, comes a-calling, finding Desiree and Fredrik alone in her dressing room. Count Malcolm becomes jealous and vows to his wife that he will exact revenge on Mr. Egerman. (I should note that although this sounds like it could be terribly dramatic, it is all treated with an air of frivolity, free from sinister intentions.) After their encounter, Desiree decides she’s in love with Mr. Egerman, that he was always the one, and invites him and his family to her mother’s home in the country. Count Malcolm invites himself and his wife to this rendezvous, which is the action of the second act, and the ensuing silliness borders on farce. In between, the maids and servants act as a Greek chorus, of sorts, commenting on the goings-on of the principle characters and occasionally providing some comic relief.

The plot is a little screwbally but the delights of …Night Music are, as mentioned above, the score and the performances. Sondheim’s score is full of patter songs and word play, and while not hummable they certainly entertain the ear during the show. The score of …Night Music features the musical theatre standard “Send in the Clowns“. Written specifically in short phrases with few sustained notes for Desiree originator Glynis Johns, the song has gone on to be one of Sondheim’s biggest hits, and has been recorded by legendary artists, including Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra.

For the most part, all of the performances are very good. An exception is Ramona Mallory, who plays Mr. Ergerman’s young wife; she comes off as terribly shrill and grating. For the first few minutes of the show, this seemed unforgivable. When it was explained that she is 18 and not really an adult, like her husband, her ridiculous antics and annoying voice made sense, but still, I felt her poor performance distracted from an otherwise very good ensemble. As the Egerman household maid, Leigh Ann Larkin was salty and sassy, and she has a terrific voice. The other maids and house servants also sounded lovely, providing pleasant sounding and wistful commentary on the main action throughout the show.

The other four principles, Angela Lansbury, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Alexander Hanson as Mr. Egerman and Aaron Lazar as Count Malcolm, are all wonderful in their roles. Lazar is commanding as the Count, with a booming voice and a powerful stage presence. Hanson, a holdover from the West End Menier Chocolate Factory production that preceded this Broadway incarnation, is funny and charming, even as a philanderer. (A note about the Menier Chocolate Factory: This small London-base production company is quickly becoming a go-to for tasteful, simple productions, giving us the delightful revival of Sunday in the Park with George, also a Sondheim classic, that played at Roundabout’s Studio 54 two seasons ago, and the Broadway-bound pared down revival of La Cage aux Folles.) Catherine Zeta-Jones is perfect as a veteran actress with an insatiable joie de vivre (et les hommes!) (Some have argued that Mrs. Michael Douglas is an interloper on the boards, trying to garner legitimate acting cred by going Broadway. I disagree. Zeta-Jones started her career in theatre, performing in London in 42nd Street. While she’s become a celebrity and gained attention because of her beauty and popcorn films, she has roots in theatre and holds her own on stage with Broadway vets.) And the great Angela Lansbury is spry and witty and funny as the matriarch who doles out advice while staying above the fray. There aren’t too many legends still at the top of their game like Ms. Lansbury and it was a special treat to watch her play on stage.