'A Little Night Music'

A handful of magnetic leads provides insurance against the uneven production.

The most atypical of Ingmar Bergman’s celebrated films, “Smiles of a Summer Night” brought ripe carnality and a delicious sense of irony to its fin-de-siecle gathering of romantically muddled Swedes. Those same intoxicating elements were translated to “A Little Night Music,” Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s exquisite waltz-musical inspired by the film. Reviving the 1973 show, director Trevor Nunn brings a blunt, heavy hand where a glissando touch is required, but the wit and sophistication of the material are sufficient to withstand even this phlegmatic staging. A handful of magnetic leads provides further insurance against the uneven production.

At the center of that bright cluster is the luminous Catherine Zeta-Jones, making her Broadway debut as fading actress and inveterate maneater Desiree Armfeldt. Bewitching, confident and utterly natural, she breathes a refreshing earthiness and warm-blooded sensuality into the part, even if she’s directed — in one of the most tiresome traits of Nunn’s production — to underline every suggestion of sexual innuendo in Wheeler’s book.

Vulnerability comes late to the performance, but it arrives in Zeta-Jones’ rueful “Send in the Clowns.” Some may take issue with the song being played more as bitter sorrow than self-deprecating introspection. But her handling of it lends touching dignity to the defeat of a woman who has hitched her plan for a new life to a man stuck in a misguided infatuation with someone else.

Zeta-Jones is the star attraction, and she’s mesmerizing enough to explain why men would duel for Desiree’s love. But the production’s real jewel is Angela Lansbury as her worldly mother.

The actress has sparkled in plays in recent seasons, but seeing her in a Sondheim musical is something quite special. Regally coiffed and outfitted, and with a strength of character undiminished even in the wheelchair she occupies for much of her stage time, her Mme. Armfeldt can inject tart flavor into a simple “La la la.”

In a musical laced with the delicate shadows of memory, she is the principal conjurer of remembrances past. Her song “Liaisons” vividly recollects Mme. Armfeldt’s trysts with counts and kings, draped in equal parts melancholy, humor, conceit and jaded wisdom. She even confronts the beckoning hand of her mortality with tenacity, raising her glass in a toast, “To death!” It’s a marvelous role, and Lansbury’s sublime performance in it alone makes this production unmissable.

There’s also a lovely three-generational throughline completed by the charming Keaton Whittaker’s preternaturally intelligent Fredricka, who figures as Puck in this Scandinavian “Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

Observing and intervening in the tangled relationships of the adults waltzing around her in perpetual twilight, she hungrily soaks up lessons on life, love and dental care from her grandmother. She also proves a complicit aid when her mostly absentee mother, Desiree, descends on Mme. Armfeldt’s estate on a romantic mission. (Whittaker alternates in the role with Katherine Leigh Doherty.)

Desiree’s plan is to secure the affections of former lover Fredrik Egerman (Alexander Hanson), a lawyer whose child-bride, Anne (Ramona Mallory), remains a virgin almost a year into their marriage. Tagging along with them for “A Weekend in the Country” is Fredrik’s son by his first marriage, Henrik (Hunter Ryan Herdlicka). The gloomy theology student also carries a torch for Anne, taking out his sexual frustration on his cello or, with less success, on frisky maid Petra (Leigh Ann Larkin).

Jealous that Fredrik’s reappearance in her life has quenched Desiree’s appetite for him, her lover Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Aaron Lazar) also arrives uninvited at the estate, with long-suffering wife Charlotte (Erin Davie) in tow.

Nunn signals his mechanical grasp of this plot of amorous intrigues past, present and future in a ghostly opening, with the choral quintet bumping about in Hartley T.A. Kemp’s half-light against designer David Farley’s spare set of mottled, mirrored walls. The atmosphere is unmistakably one of dusty gentility, but visually, it’s dour and uninteresting aside from Farley’s handsome costumes. The monochromatic staging is further encumbered by stiff, presentational blocking that amplifies the operetta aspects but imposes a stodginess on the human drama, even when Nunn leans hard on the comedy.

Sole holdover from the production’s original incarnation at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory and then in the West End, Hanson too often breaks into actorish talk-singing in what seems another odd directorial whim. But his gentle, somewhat lost Fredrik adds a layer of tenderness to the role — sweetly addled by his love for Anne, and oblivious to Desiree’s mounting irritation as he enthuses, “You Must Meet My Wife.” And Hanson’s warm playfulness with Zeta-Jones gives real body to the central relationship.

Lazar also does fine work as dashing but insensitive military man Carl-Magnus, tamping down the role’s pompous buffoonery, while Herdlicka’s cherubic face makes awkward Henrik’s raging torment funnier.

Nunn has cast accomplished singers across the board, but the women who flank Zeta-Jones and Lansbury are problematic. Mallory’s Anne is a cartoon of tittering imbecility, and Davie lacks the brittle sourness for Charlotte, whose contempt for her openly philandering husband is equaled by her hopeless love for him.

It’s a typically ambivalent view of marriage from Sondheim, but much of the sting of Charlotte’s dialogue, and her acrimonious assessment of their union, “Every Day a Little Death,” is diluted in this unconvincing turn. It’s also one of a number of songs weighed down by lethargic tempi.

The most grating miscalculation — and the worst example of Nunn’s tendency to vulgarize the comedy — is Larkin’s Petra. With her wandering accent, she’s like a lusty refugee from a Benny Hill sketch. Her “The Miller’s Son” is a wonderful song, its clear-eyed view of love contrasting the cloudier romantic illusions of the main characters. But this lewd characterization makes its placement an unwelcome interruption.

What’s remarkable, given its unsatisfying elements, is that this “Night Music” still seduces. Jason Carr’s reduced orchestrations for eight musicians have an airiness that allows the complexity of Sondheim’s three-quarter-time melodies and elegantly clever lyrics to resonate fully. The choice to refocus the show into a chamber piece was a smart one. But a director with a more intuitive feel for intimacy and subtlety would have made more sense.

A Little Night Music

Walter Kerr Theater; 931 seats; $137 top

Production

A Tom Viertel, Steven Baruch, Marc Routh, Richard Frankel, Menier Chocolate Factory, Roger Berlind, David Babani, Sonia Friedman Prods., Andrew Fell, Daryl Roth/Jane Bergere, Harvey Weinstein/Raise the Roof 3, Beverly Bartner/Dancap Prods., Nica Burns/Max Weitzenhoffer, Eric Falkenstein/Anna Czekaj, Jerry Frankel/Ronald Frankel, James D. Stern/Douglas L. Meyer presentation of a musical in two acts with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler, suggested by the Ingmar Bergman film "Smiles of a Summer Night." Directed by Trevor Nunn. Music direction, Tom Murray. Choreography, Lynne Page.

Crew

Sets and costumes, David Farley; lighting, Hartley T.A. Kemp; sound, Dan Moses Shreier, Gareth Owen; music supervision, Caroline Humphris; orchestrations, Jason Carr; music coordination, John Miller; wigs and hair, Paul Huntley; makeup, Angelina Avallone; technical supervision, Aurora Prods.; associate producers, Broadway Across America, Dan Frishwasser, Jam Theatricals, Richard Winkler; production stage manager, Ira Mont. Opened Dec. 13, 2009. Reviewed Dec. 10. Running time: 2 HOURS, 55 MIN.

With

Desiree Armfeldt - Catherine Zeta-Jones Mme. Armfeldt - Angela Lansbury Fredrik Egerman - Alexander Hanson Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm - Aaron Lazar Countess Charlotte Malcolm - Erin Davie Petra - Leigh Ann Larkin Henrik Egerman - Hunter Ryan Herdlicka Anne Egerman - Ramona Mallory
With: Stephen R. Buntrock, Bradley Dean, Katherine Leigh Doherty, Marissa McGowan, Betsy Morgan, Jayne Paterson, Kevin David Thomas, Keaton Whittaker.
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