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NY Theater Reviews

Elaine Stritch and company/ Ph: Joan Marcus

ISN'T IT RICH ... ALMOST

By BERNARD CARRAGHER

Those who saw Trevor Nunn's first round of production, with a different cast, might find this second go-round a bit lacking in chemistry.

A Little Night Music is one of composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s most glorious creations: an elegant operetta, ingeniously written in three-quarter waltz time, complimented by an intelligent, witty book by Hugh Wheeler suggested by Ingmar Berman’s classic 1955 film, Smiles of a Summer Night. Basically it is a musical roundelay regarding a group of early 20th-century Swedish aristocrats languishing in the glow of their country’s never-ending twilight, musing about loves lost and found, past, present and future.
 
When it first premiered in producer-director Harold Prince’s 1973 sumptuous production, it seemed to me a work of perfection. It went on to win a shelf full of Tony awards including best musical of the season. Fast-forward to London, 2008, where the protean English director Trevor Nunn, known for staging Shakespeare and mega-musicals like Cats and Les Miserables, decides to mount a chamber version of the show at the miniscule Menier Chocolate Factory, a popular South Bank venue. Recent Chocolate Factory successes that have found their way to our shores have been Sunday in the Park with George and this season’s Tony winner for best musical revival La Cage aux Faux.
 
Mr. Nunn’s scaled-down A Little Night Music revival opened in New York last December at the Walter Kerr Theater on West 48th Street, with a mostly American cast bolstered by the movie star wattage of Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta Jones, who received a Tony award for her performance. It received respectful reviews, if not raves, and thanks to the drawing power of its leading ladies broke box office records. When the ladies' contracts were up this past June the show’s producers were unwilling to ring down the curtain, instead eliciting a couple of Sondheim stalwarts and Broadway royals, Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch, to step in.
 
After a brief rehearsal period they began performances in mid July. The results have been mixed. I have had reservations about Mr. Nunn’s revival of the show from the beginning, especially his glacial pacing, which slows down the musical’s early scenes to a crawl and tends to halt the audience's interest and involvement as well as enjoyment. It also seemed that Ms. Peters and Ms. Stritch had not had the time or director Nunn’s guidance to create really persuasive characterizations. They seemed to have been pasted onto Mr. Nunn’s original production just to keep the show running.
        
Ms. Peters, who is 62, still looks like a soubrette, hardly the character of Desiree Armfeldt, a middle-aged actress who has spent a lifetime of touring the Swedish provinces playing Ibsen. As much as I admire Ms. Peters' acting prowess, I can never imagine her as Hedda Gabler. Glynis Johns, who created the role in 1973, was only 50 at the time but brought a maturity and sophistication in her voice, eyes and movements. At this point Ms. Peters' performance is charming and agreeable, that’s all.
 
The one exception is when she sings the shows signature song, “Send in the Clowns.” Here Ms. Peters finds the key to Desiree in a true and simple way and shows us for the first time the core of this woman’s bittersweet character and gives us a preview of what her performance might ultimately become. Ms. Stritch, at 84, is chronologically correct, to play her mother, Mme. Armfeldt, but I have never thought of her as the object of desire of barons and kings of Europe as she purports in the brilliant Sondheim showstopper, “Liaisons.” To me she has always been as American as a tart apple pie and a true Broadway baby. This turns into a plus for Ms. Stritch, allowing her to deliver with unerring timing every scintilla of humor Mr. Wheeler has written for her character. By way of being entirely fair and accurate, it should be emphasized that both performers are not unpleasant and not unattractive in their roles; quite the contrary. But as believable characters they both have a ways to go.
        
The small orchestra of nine, under Rob Bowman’s baton, does justice to Mr. Sondheim’s score, as do all the performers who sing its songs exquisitely, especially the one British holdover, Alexander Hanson, who plays Fredrik Egerman, Desiree’s old love interest.
 
Though Mr. Nunn’s production of