Oh, What a Night: Stritch and Peters Are Thrilling in A Little Night Music

A Little Night Music posterI adore Elaine Stritch: her racy sense of humor, her impeccable timing, her enormous charisma, her trouper’s chops. So did all the other musical-theater fans at the Walter Kerr Theatre last week, who cheered wildly-even whooped, as if they were at a sporting event-upon her entrance as the aged and imperious courtesan Madame Armfeldt in Trevor Nunn’s intimate staging of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s A Little Night Music.

Ms. Stritch, long known for her work with Mr. Sondheim, has replaced Angela Lansbury in that role, and, for her adoring fans, she’s a treat to watch as she mugs her way through her first Broadway appearance since her one-woman show, Elaine Stritch at Liberty, eight years ago. She is joined by Bernadette Peters, another Sondheim vet, who steps in for Catherine Zeta-Jones as Madame Armfeldt’s daughter, the legendary actress DesirĂ©e, around whom the show’s love triangle revolves.

The point now is the two leads; otherwise, the production is essentially the same as it was in December, enjoyable and lovely and darkly lit. (Why that lighting on a Scandinavian summer night when the sun never sets remains unclear.)

Ms. Stritch’s Madame Armfeldt is a deliciously bawdy old broad; she milks the character’s one-liners and can get a laugh with a well-placed sidelong glance. But the audience’s adoration is also a necessary crutch, because the 84-year-old Ms. Stritch isn’t up to the demands of a leading musical role. She talk-sings, rather than sing-sings-which works well enough, as it did in her Sondheim tribute show at the Carlyle earlier this year, and as it did for Rex Harrison throughout his career-and she can’t remember her lines.

In “Liaisons,” Madame Armfeldt’s big number, a nostalgic recollection of the great affairs of her youth, the lyrics suggest the difficulties of an old woman’s memory-“Now where was I? Where was I? Oh, yes,” she sings at one point-and at the press preview I saw, Ms. Stritch forgot the words. It was, in some ways, a poignant echo, a symbiotic meshing of character and performer, but it was also a tense, awkward moment that took the audience out of the show.

I do not, on the hand, adore Ms. Peters. Her odd little-girl manner often rubs me the wrong way. And Ms. Zeta-Jones, who, despite her dreadful “Send in the Clowns” at the Tony Awards, sang more than adequately when I saw her Night Music performance in December, is a better fit for the character: a knowing, world-weary, sex-symbol celebrity.

But, here, Ms. Peters-glamorous with her mess of red curls sitting atop her head-is a fantastic DesirĂ©e, funny with her suitors, tender with her daughter and singing beautifully. Her “Send in the Clowns” is thrilling.

Indeed, aside from Ms. Stritch’s frailties, the entire evening is thrilling: two musical-theater legends, in a fine production of a canonical show. And those frailties might make it even more rewarding: Night Music now provides both the pleasure of a great evening of the theater and the relief of seeing Ms. Strich make it successfully to the end.