Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch Brighten the Starshine of A Little Night Music


When director Trevor Nunn’s revival of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music (Walter Kerr Theatre) arrived here from London’s Menier Chocolate Factory last December, with a largely new cast that boasted two cinematic eminences, Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones, public reaction came in almost exact inverse proportion to experience: The more familiar you were with the work and its previous productions, particularly the 1973 original, the less you liked what Nunn and his colleagues had done. People naturally had good words for Lansbury and Zeta-Jones, artists whose fame does not derive from mere image-marketing, but even that praise was hedged about with reservations. Tickets sold well—stars are stars, after all—but nobody pretended that New York was smitten with this rendition of Night Music.

Then Zeta-Jones’s and Lansbury’s departure dates loomed, and the producers, unusually for Broadway producers in our disheartening time, did something intelligent. Instead of scrounging around the corpses of recently deceased sitcoms in search of TV “names” with zero stage credibility, they actually hired two well-known New York stage performers who, like Lansbury, had played prominent roles in major Sondheim works: Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch. This aroused so much interest that the theater almost became a topic of widespread conversation again locally, and even I felt curious enough to pay a second visit.

The news from that revisit, while not much to ecstasize over, is mostly good. Nothing will cure the production’s numerous shortcomings—it remains, among its other demerits, about the most unattractively designed show in the history of musical theater—but a great deal has been done, by various means, to improve matters, and the net result is a considerably more satisfying experience than it was last December. At that point, most of the playing, except for Lansbury’s, was coarse, and most of the staging crude; it gave off a sense of Nunn pushing hard to dumb down this cerebral, emotionally twisty show for the sake of the tourist audiences that had shelled out to see Zeta-Jones.

Now, everything feels different. What seemed dumbed down has been somewhat smartened up. In outline, the staging is the same, and whatever you thought wrong with it then will still bother you, but the tonality of many specific points has altered in the playing, and few now feel hammered at you. The piece distinctly resembles, at times, the romantically bittersweet, sardonically regretful piece that Sondheim, his librettist Hugh Wheeler, and their co-creators set out to shape back in 1973—a tribute to the vagaries of a bygone time, when life was just as pointless, and love just as futile, as they are today, but both were carried on with a little more style, and with rather better manners.

Some of the production’s improvement is a simple matter of what actors call “playing in.” The actors who opened on Broadway eight months ago largely constituted, in effect, a replacement cast, going through motions that had originally been planned with their London counterparts in mind. Inevitably, much of what they did then seemed raw, unassimilated, a set of rote gestures carried out on directorial orders. Time, plus an occasional note from an assistant director, can alter such things. Actors, remarkably capable of thought when granted the opportunity, can figure out what a given move means, or how to make it convey meaning.

In Night Music‘s supporting cast, the biggest steps forward have been taken by Aaron Lazar and Erin Davie, in the key secondary roles of the conniving Count and Countess Malcolm, the heroine’s dunderheaded dragoon lover and his embittered spouse, whose tenuous friendship with lawyer Egerman’s still-virgin bride (Ramona Mallory) triggers the second act’s country-house chaos. Last December, Davie and Lazar sang skillfully, but their acting suggested lumberjacks crashing through a tea party. Now, both their deportment and their emotional focus (their characters’ sense of themselves, you might say) have been brought up to par. They appear to be human beings caught in the same place as the others, instead of actors making desperate grabs for effect in isolation.

Leigh Ann Larkin as Petra, the Egermans’ sexually forthright maid, hasn’t come quite that far, but her behavior, and the staging of her big song, “The Miller’s Son,” have at least been modulated to the point where you see her character’s place in the story. Even Hunter Ryan Herdlicka—as the priggish seminarian Henrik, Egerman’s son by his first marriage—though still vocally squawky, now cuts a more coherently callow figure. Mallory, dishearteningly, seems less effective than before as his doting virginal stepmama, though Alexander Hanson, as her frustrated, wayward husband, has enriched and brightened what was already effective work as Egerman, on whom the story pivots.

Hanson’s ample justification for seeming brighter may be summed up in two words: Bernadette Peters. Peters is not only a star, but the right star for the role of Desiree, the perpetually touring star actress, a mature woman still plagued by girlish vanity, with a sophisticate’s yearning for simple domesticity. Right now, her performance has its patchy aspects; some passages are still disconnectedly played. But she embodies the role so convincingly, and seizes so much of it with dead-on precision, that worry becomes superfluous. When, with a rueful glance at Hanson, she launches into “Send in the Clowns,” you can pretty much forget every other version you’ve ever heard of this much-belabored masterpiece, with the possible exception of Barbara Cook’s. Peters’ is it.

Stritch poses a different problem: Can a star triumph in a role for which she’s wholly unsuited? Nothing less like the epigram-spouting European grande horizontale who has slept, and polished, her way to château ownership could be imagined than the feisty, sardonic yet game, middle-American gal whom Stritch has embodied over the decades. True, her brashness might have delighted kings and dukes, but for how long? Additionally, she has a golden-ager’s struggle remembering lines; she had it noticeably twice, at the first press performance, during “Liaisons,” a song difficult enough for those with unimpaired powers of memory. (Her visible awareness of her lapses must pain her as much as reporting them pains me.) Yet her force and magnetism don’t diminish: The wrong star for the role, she’s still a star the audience loves, even when the thought of someone deeding her a duchy spurs her to emit a whoop that suggests Martha Raye at a rodeo. Call her wrong, yes, but wonderful.