A Little Night Music

Now playing at the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway.

There’s something a very A Midsummer Night’s Dream about A Little Night Music. The Sondheim musical (based on the Bergman film Smiles on a Summer Night) introduces us to a number of unhappy, mismatched couples and then sends them all to the forest—well, the countryside here, but it serves the same symbolic purpose—where they sort themselves out, partnering off as they “should” more or less by accident. Anyone watching could be forgiven for mumbling something about what fools these mortals be. It’s that kind of story.

Which is to say it’s sweet and sometimes charming but also a bit exasperating because everyone is so blundering: few of the characters are truly actors in their own lives; rather, they just react, blindly, which makes for a flailing piece of drama. Certainly, a character’s passivity can be true to life, but I find it unpersuasive here, a little too glib, too smug—lazy sneering at the bourgeois. Sondheim’s music is always intriguing, but A Little Night Music will not go down as one of my favorite musicals.

This revival, directed by Trevor Nunn, is being sold largely with star power: Catherine Zeta-Jones as actress Desirée Armfeldt and Angela Lansbury as her mother, Madame Armfeldt, a former courtesan. Lansbury didn’t perform at the matinee my family and I attended, but this is largely an ensemble piece anyway, so the production soldiered on without any apparent issues. If there is a principle character, it’s probably not either of the Armfeldts—certainly not Madame—but Fredrik Egerman (Alexander Hanson), a middle-aged lawyer in early twentieth-century Sweden, whose new young wife, nineteen-year-old Anne (Ramona Mallory), is a year younger than his son, Henrik (Hunter Ryan Herdlicka). As trophy wives go, Anne is only for show: she’s so high-strung and repressed that the marriage has never been consummated, which may be why the passive-aggressive Fredrik takes her to see a play starring the glamorous Desirée Armfeldt, a former lover of his. Anne guesses the nature of their relationship, Desirée has her own reasons for wanting to renew it, and after a lot of first act buildup, the second act opens with the three Egermans visiting the Armfeldt country estate—with Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Aaron Lazar), Desirée’s current lover, crashing the party with his own wife.

The simple two-act structure sounds good in theory—first setup, then fallout—but in practice, it’s uneven. Act One feels overstuffed, heavy with exposition, and Act Two rushes headlong past major plot turns just when things start to get interesting. It’s frustrating. Even more frustrating, though, are the uneven performances. Zeta-Jones and Hanson are quite good as the older, star-crossed lovers. Zeta-Jones isn’t a particularly strong singer, but she doesn’t need to be: “Send in the Clowns,” Desirée’s big number, might have an evocative melody and a hypnotic triple meter, but with its limited range and short phrases, it’s not difficult. Desirée doesn’t need to be a musical powerhouse; she just needs charisma and chemistry with Fredrik, and Zeta-Jones delivers that easily.

In fact, Zeta-Jones and Hanson are so good together that it’s difficult to understand why Fredrik would even consider choosing Anne over Desirée—especially because Mallory’s performance as Anne is ridiculously, grotesquely, horrifically unappealing. Seriously: I cringed whenever she walked on stage. I know Anne is supposed to be naïve and neurotic, but Mallory delivers every damn line in a monotonously high-pitched, giggly shriek with gaspy little breaths every three or four words regardless of context. I cannot possibly stress enough how obnoxious—and thoroughly unpersuasive—that performance is. She is nails on a chalkboard personified. The character Henrik is similar to Anne—repressed and unhappy and insanely overwrought—but Herdlicka, by comparison, gives a brilliant, humane performance. He gets a shade screechy on the huge melodic leaps in his big solo, “Later,” but that works for the character in its way. Sort of. Honestly, I think a better singer and actor could do more with Henrik, give him a bit more nuance, but whatever. Herdlicka delivers his lines with natural cadences and recognizable human emotions, and as he usually appears alongside Mallory’s Anne, he looks all the better for it.

The character who snuck up on me, though, was Petra (Leigh Ann Larkin), the Armfeldts’ maid. She’s something of a cliché—the forthright, happily sexual working-class girl rolling her eyes at the stuffy inhibitions of her employers—but Larkin gives her such warm, easy-going affection, with a hint of good-natured snark, that she manages to transcend that, at least at the end, in her big solo, “The Miller’s Son.” The song was unfamiliar to me—“Send in the Clowns” and “A Weekend in the Country,” the two songs traditionally highlighted from A Little Night Music, were the only ones I knew—but now, for me, “The Miller’s Son” is the highlight. Alternating between a quasi-folk melody and an archetypal Sondheim texture with briskly rhythmic, wordy phrases—all of it gorgeously harmonized—the song beautifully encapsulates the tension Petra is playing with. Larkin handles the tricky transitions perfectly with a supple mezzo tone, and the effect is magical.

And that makes sense. It should be magical, for Petra’s final appearance has the same vibe as Puck’s in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Like Puck, Petra has floated above most of the story’s shenanigans. She’s not vulnerable the way the other characters are. She knows herself, and she lives as she pleases: she doesn’t need the countryside to transform her. And like Puck, she gets the last word (the rest of Night Music is just denouement), turning up to obliquely but alluringly summarize the story’s themes and turn the audience away on an up note. If anyone shall restore amends after I’ve suffered through the grating Anne, it’s Petra, smiling lightly, bathed in a soft blue light, singing Sondheim’s spellwoven song.

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