Easily the most anticipated musical of the season thus far has been the Broadway transfer of acclaimed London production of A Little Night Music. My schedule didn't allow me to see the show during previews, as is my normal wont, but I did get down to the Walter Kerr Theater last weekend to take in [sigh] a post-opening performance.
Given that I was seeing A Little Night Music almost a month into its run, it was inevitable that I would have already heard a good deal about the production. For instance, I had witnessed much talk of the scaled-down staging, reflecting the larger trend of treating Stephen Sondheim revivals as "chamber" pieces. This particular aspect of A Little Night Music didn't bother me: these reduced productions have at least one positive effect, which is creating more of a focus on the piece itself.
I had heard a good deal of grumbling about the reduced orchestrations: the current production of Night Music features new charts by Jason Carr for eight musicians, whereas the originals by Jonathan Tunick called for 25. I guess I don't really focus on sound quality and fullness, as long as the playing is professional, which it most certainly was. The music sounded just fine to my admittedly unrefined and inattentive ear.
What did bother me were some of director Trevor Nunn's staging choices, some of which seemed to defy explanation. Most egregious was the dinner scene, in which Nunn has the cast sitting on the floor on pillows. Not only did it seem strange that elegant dinner guests would be lolling around on the floor, but this choice would seem to be a direct contradiction of Madame Armfeldt's line upon the guests' arrival: "We cannot be caught squatting on the ground like Bohemians."
One note of irony in the supposedly "intimate" production design was the scenery by David Farley, which was lumbering, cumbersome, and visually unappealing. And the much-discussed exceedingly dim lighting, designed by Hartley T A Kemp, is indeed exceedingly, annoyingly, unnecessarily dark. Is the production team trying to get us to focus more on the characters? Or hide the hideous set? Whatever, the insufficient illumination here is irritating, and I would imagine even more so for those with aging eyes. And when you add the veritable darkness of the proceedings to the production's deadly slow pacing -- the show clocks in at 3 hours, whereas the original was closer to 2.5 -- the effect is soporific, indeed.
All of which would seem to be beside the point, because very few attendees for this Night Music are there for orchestral richness, atmospheric lighting, or swift pacing. They were there to see Catherine Zeta-Jones, who is perfectly presentable, if uninspired, as Desiree. Her manner during the book scenes was very natural, but during the songs she seemed to be pushing. In her first number, "The Glamorous Life," it seemed as though she was trying to justify her presence on Broadway. Her diction was a bit lacking at times, but her voice is strong and appealing. "Send in the Clowns" had a nice, smoky quality to it, although she did sharp a bit on the final note, when she tried adding a brief crescendo/diminuendo emphasis.
But I couldn't help thinking as I watched the show, "She's the reason we're all here." Because, without Catherine Zeta-Jones, this revival quite simply would never have made it to Broadway. News that she would make her Broadway debut in the show reached as far as China and Pakistan. The production has been playing at or near capacity, with a very healthy average ticket of about $130.00. But when CZJ leaves, the show very likely close, unless they can find another Hollywood A-lister to step in.
Not that it really matters, but the casting for the rest of the show has its highs and lows. Angela Lansbury is her fabulous self as Madame Armfeldt, although in truth, she's not entirely suited to the role. Try as she might, our beloved Angela is far too likable in a part that should be imperious and cutting. Broadway newcomer Alexander Hanson is terrific as Frederick, conveying just the right sense of world-weariness and faded prowess. Leigh Ann Larkin is far more subtle and effective as Petra than she was (IMHO) as June in Gypsy. Larkin does a bang-up job on "Miller's Son," one of the best I've ever seen, in fact. (I still don't think the song belongs in the show, though: it stops the action dead, asking us to spend four-plus minutes with a minor character just as we want things to wrap up.)
There were, however, some major casting missteps. Ramona Mallory seems to be have been cast solely because she's the daughter of the original Anne, Victoria Mallory. At first, Mallory the younger seemed a welcome -- albeit petulant -- change from the typical ingenue. But she eventually became irritatingly hysterical and whiny. Aaron Lazar seems far too young and not nearly imposing enough as Carl-Magnus. And then there's poor Erin Davie, a wonderfully talented young woman, who is sorely miscast here as Charlotte. Davie is far too soft-edged. Her "Every Day a Little Death," which should be a paean to understated bitterness, becomes a maudlin, melodramatic affair. Davie seems to be acting up a storm, trying to make the part work, but she's simply not right for the part, at least not now, and perhaps not ever.
While I remain glad that A Little Night Music has finally, after 35 years, made it back to Broadway, the production at hand hasn't much to offer to beyond marquee-value names above the title. It's certainly a strong show in its own right, and the current version is never less than serviceable. But for $137.00, is "serviceable" really enough?