Night Music Still a Delight

Maybe you liked Hal Prince’s original staging of A Little Night Music better. Fine, you were blown away by Judi Dench’s interpretation of Desirée in London in 1995. But the new revival of Night Music, which opened at the Walter Kerr Sunday night—the first Broadway production since its 1973 premiere, though it has been mounted several times by the City Opera—is a fantastic night at the theater, an entrancing, lovely, delightfully cast production of a Stephen Sondheim classic.

A Little Night Music is adapted from Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night. It’s about a series of love triangles: The legendary actress Desirée Armfeldt is having an affair with a dim-witted military officer but yearning for a former lover, the lawyer Fredrik. Fredrik is pining for Desirée but married to a young second wife, Anne. Anne is in thrall to her husband but also flirts with her more age-appropriate stepson, Henrik. Henrik is in love with Anne but lusts for the maid, Petra. And so on. (The theme of threes continues in Mr. Sondheim’s waltz-heavy score—all 3/4 time.)

While Mr. Prince has referred to the movie as “whipped cream with knives,” Mr. Sondheim has lamented that “the knives sort of got lost,” that his musical is too light and frothy. Director Trevor Nunn’s production, originally staged for London’s Menier Chocolate Factory, which also originated last season’s excellent revival of Mr. Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George, may not have knives but isn’t without a certain pervasive darkness.

The stage is bathed in Scandinavianly moody light, lots of dim blue and stark white and a perpetual dusting of fog, with a simple set backed with tarnished mirrors that evoke an aged country house. (The sets and costumes are by David Farley and the lights by Hartley T.A. Kemp.) While the musical ends with the love triangles happily resolved into the “correct” couplings, the journey there reminds us of all the characters’ sadness, yearning and confusion. Many of Mr. Sondheim’s songs from the show are songs of regret: “Send in the Clowns,” about a relationship that has never managed to work; “Every Day a Little Death,” about the accumulated indignities of an unfaithful marriage.

Top billing goes to Catherine Zeta-Jones, the movie star and cell-phone pitchwoman, who makes her Broadway debut as Desirée. It’s fashionable to haughtily resign oneself to the prevalence of movie stars on Broadway stages, but it’s sometimes hard to understand why: Shows need audiences—as producers of the recent and worthy Brighton Beach Memoirs, which lacked both stars and an audience and closed in a week, can tell you—and the reality is that movie stars are a big help in delivering them.

But less cynically, Ms. Zeta-Jones gives movie stars–on–stage a good name. She’s gorgeous and magnetic, of course, and therefore effective as the gorgeous and magnetic star Desirée—her open face and enormous eyes are transfixing on the stage; she’s the only character lit in warm amber. She sings well, too—she started her career on the London stage and won an Oscar playing Velma Kelly in the 2002 film of Chicago—and is confident and commanding in her lines and line readings, as sometimes screen actors are not. She fits the role, rather than being shoehorned into it.

Angela Lansbury is even better as her mother, Madame Armfeldt, the aging courtesan remembering her glamorous life and liaisons and bemusedly bemoaning the tacky goings-on of the younger generation. Boldly for a woman of her age, she allows herself to be made up and lit to look even older; Ms. Lansbury spends most of the show being pushed and pulled around the stage in wheelchair, clad in a dowdy and high-necked but sequined black gown, what you might expect Liza to wear in a nursing home.

Ms. Lansbury gets many of the best lines in Hugh Wheeler’s funny and sometimes disconcertingly ribald book, and she delivers them spectacularly. “To lose a husband or two in life is vexing,” she pronounces at one point, bemoaning her old age. “But to lose one’s teeth”—long, regal pause—“is a tragedy.”

It’s been a good five years to be a Sondheim fan in New York, from the Roundabout Theatre Company Assassins through the John Doyle Sweeney Todd and Company to Menier’s Sunday. (Never mind the blockbuster Patti LuPone Gypsy and last season’s good-enough West Side Story.) This Night Music, happily, continues that trend.


IT SEEMS NOT quite right to call Brief Encounter a play.

The Kneehigh Theatre, based in Cornwall, England, has adapted the romantic, and heartbreaking 1945 David Lean move, based on a Noël Coward play, into a fascinating and totally engrossing multimedia extravaganza that’s now playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Dumbo.

The story is a simple one, about a pair of stiff-upper-lip Britons who endure a passionate though unconsummated love affair. Each is married with children, and they both realize that it’s simply impossible to be together. It’s a moving portrait of the stifling nature of propriety, especially the British sort. (That Coward was gay makes the story all the more poignant, as director Emma Rice points out in a note in the program.)

The setting is 1938, and Hannah Yelland and Tristan Sturrock play the unhappy lovers as though they’ve stepped out of the movie, still bound by the repressions of that time and place.

But Ms. Rice, who also adapted the script, makes the rest of the production a sort of burlesque that expresses the lovers’ just-under-the-surface emotions. Supporting players like waitresses and stationmasters double as musicians, playing jaunty banjo and ukulele tunes that express the lovers’ emotions. There are 39 Steps–style portrayals of passing trains and rowboat pratfalls, mannequins filling in for children, projected movie scenes and ingenious Purple Rose of Cairo movements of characters from stage to screen.

The production is lighthearted and very witty, but the story is still emotionally deep and affecting. The cast is multitalented and immensely hardworking—not only do most of them play multiple roles, but many are in the lobby before the show, wearing old-fashioned movie-usher uniforms and playing tunes; by the time the audience shuffles out after the show, they’re there again, playing, singing and handing out cucumber sandwiches.

A play, a movie, a concert, a snack—it’s an experience, and it’s a pleasure.

  Night Music Still a Delight