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 Desirée, 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 Desirée, 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.