Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****
Except for "Send in the Clowns," I went into the Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music with pretty much a blank slate.
I panicked when I saw an unfamiliar name listed for the role of Fredrika Armfeldt on the understudy board at the Walter Kerr Theatre. I was afraid that meant either Angela Lansbury or Catherine Zeta-Jones was out.
Not to worry. The entire cast was in and the role of Fredrika, granddaughter to Lansbury's Madame Armfeldt and daughter to Zeta-Jones' Desiree Armfeldt, is alternated by two young actresses.
My ignorance meant that I didn't have any preconceived ideas about how A Little Night Music should look or sound or how the characters should behave. I only wanted what I hope for every time I go to the theatre - to be entertained, to be moved. And I was captivated.
First of all, it's an absorbing, romantic story of how we all yearn for love - from youth to old age, from a nobleman to a maid.
The characters are involved in various romantic entanglements in turn of the 20th century Sweden, which culminate in a weekend at a country house. The waltzes, the singers who shadow the main characters and the subdued lighting by Hartley T.A. Kemp give the musical a dreamlike, fairy tale quality.
The book, by Hugh Wheeler and based on the 1955 Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night, offers a look at love in its different stages - from the clumsy inexperience of youth to the reminiscences and regrets as we get older. The characters are so interesting and very funny - there's much more humor than I thought there would be in a musical based on a Bergman film.
Oscar winner Zeta-Jones, making her Broadway debut as actress Desiree, is beautiful - actually beyond beautiful, she's radiant. You can't take your eyes off her, yet she doesn't overpower any of her fellow actors. And she looks like she's having a great time.
Desiree is still a star, still able to attract men, but you get the sense something's missing from her life. She's warm and vibrant and so loving with her daughter, played at the performance I saw by the very sweet Keaton Whittaker.
This production has a seven-piece orchestra, and I can't say how A Little Night Music would sound with more musicians. But it was was exciting to hear the first strains of "Send in the Clowns." Zeta-Jones sings it in a way that's a lament: poignant and fits perfectly with the story.
Lansbury is wonderful as Madame Armfeldt, stern, wise and regal, who doesn't quite approve of her daughter or how things are done today. She takes charge of Fredrika while Desiree is touring. I could almost envision the musical as a grandmother's story to her granddaughter. (Ok, admittedly some things you probably wouldn't tell a a preteen girl.)
And what an absolute thrill to hear Lansbury sing, practically in front of me from my third-row orchestra seat. I was literally holding my breath during "Liaisons," in which she recounts some of her past relationships. This is my third time seeing her on Broadway but the first time I've heard her sing and it was an unforgettable experience.
I also enjoyed Englishman Alexander Hanson as lawyer Frederick Egerman, a gentle widower who may have made a mistake in taking a very young bride; Aaron Lazar as the self-important, womanizing officer Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm and Erin Davie as Charlotte, his long-suffering and conniving wife.
Newcomers Ramona Mallory and Hunter Ryan Herdlicka are Anne and Henrik, Frederick's wife and his son from his first marriage. Their performances are a bit over the top but accentuate their youthfulness, and I thought they were fun to watch. Herdlicka is hilarious as a lovesick seminary student. And Mallory is so bubbly as Anne, still a child despite her marriage.
And the score - gorgeous and witty and complex. It was fun thinking about connections to other Sondheim musicals. The group of singers and some of the songs reminded me of Sweeney Todd - not the lyrics themselves but the way they were styled, their rhythm.
A Little Night Music opened on Broadway in 1973, won the Tony for Best Musical and ran for 18 months. From what others have written, I gather that was a more lavish production in terms of the set and costumes and orchestration.
The revival, directed by Trevor Nunn, has a bare-bones set by David Farley to go along with its bare-bones orchestra. It originated at London's Menier Chocolate Factory, although the only holdover in the cast is Hanson. The Menier also has fewer than 200 seats and my guess is it played very differently in that setting.
Personally, I thought the set design and costumes, also by Farley, were fine. Neither seemed out of place for the time. My biggest concern was that I'd heard it had a nearly three-hour running time. But the time just flew by.
I don't know how this production of A Little Night Music compares to any other. All I can say is, it was daylight when I entered the theatre, dark when I got out. I felt like I'd been transported someplace for the afternoon. And I'd go back again anytime.