Jeremy Irons really can’t carry a tune, God bless him, but his immensely appealing perf in New York City Opera’s revival of “A Little Night Music” almost makes you forget it. Returning to the New York stage for the first time in nearly two decades as Fredrik Egerman, the lawyer who rekindles an old flame and loses a young wife in Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s rue-tinged comedy of romantic complications, Irons radiates the kind of star quality that a spectacular set of vocal cords can’t necessarily provide. His spirited performance also infuses the production with the human warmth that is in dangerously short supply in this lackluster staging, which finds a fistful of theater performers making variable opera-house debuts.
The musical itself made its own debut on the opera stage some time ago, of course. The turn-of-the-century Swedish setting and sumptuous, waltz-based score, with its suggestions of old Vienna, make it a natural candidate for recruitment. But “Little Night Music” is really a chamber musical at heart: It speaks in an intimate voice, both musically and dramatically. This City Opera production, directed by Scott Ellis and choreographed by Susan Stroman, dating from 1990, looks scattered and diffuse on the wide expanse of the State Theater stage.
The subtle (if controversial) amplification system City Opera uses for its operatic fare is turned up a few notches, putting a chilly distance between performers and audience. It also magnifies some of the peculiar sounds coming from throats not accustomed to singing. An opera house is possibly not the ideal place to present a “Little Night Music” with performers unversed in musical theater. (When City Opera first staged it, the cast included more experienced singers, including Sally Ann Howes and opera star Regina Resnik.)
Irons’ thin singing voice is devoid of texture and vibrato, but Egerman is not required to do much sustained vocalizing, and Irons makes up for any drawbacks by delivering an honest, funny and touching performance. It is full of delicate notes that linger in the memory, from Fredrik’s confusion and shame as he fumblingly admits his desire for Desiree, to the melancholy stillness with which he watches his wife’s departure. Irons’ Fredrik is a man whose sensitive heart can just be discerned beneath his always dignified, worldly public face.
Juliet Stevenson, a British actress whose extensive bio doesn’t mention any musicals, plays Desiree, Egerman’s onetime paramour and possible future wife. Her delivery of “Send in the Clowns,” the song that best captures the musical’s aching, bittersweet tone, is tentative, neither revelatory nor embarrassing. A major vocal endowment is not required: Judi Dench’s sprechstimme version, in a gorgeous Royal National Theater production from the mid-’90s, remains a high point of my theatergoing experience. It’s emotional depth that is missing from Stevenson’s competent but dry delivery — of both song and role. Desiree requires a particular kind of glamour, too: You have to carry off the clothes, and Stevenson’s strong, rectangular face seems at odds with the billowing curves of her luscious wigs and sweeping gowns.
Claire Bloom’s Madame Armfeldt, the matriarch with a colorful past who comments on the follies of romance from the imperious height of her wheelchair, is also a disappointment. She’s suitably grand, but strangely devoid of compassion. Also lacking in appeal is Kristin Huxhold as Egerman’s young wife, Anne. Huxhold has a pretty soprano, but Anne should be more than the petulant, shallow girl she is here. When Egerman speaks of his wife’s “charm,” we aren’t supposed to smirk, even if Desiree does.
Marc Kudisch and Michele Pawk, Broadway performers with excellent voices, fare better in the essentially comic roles of the smug, selfish Carl-Magnus and his wryly embittered wife, Charlotte. Kudisch’s robust baritone is unleashed to spine-tingling effect on “In Praise of Women,” while Pawk’s wry line readings are often pleasing.
Ellis’ staging likewise has its appealing bits of invention, such as the dignified game of musical chairs that ushers the romantic confusions taking place behind the scenes into the parlor.
But in general the comedy seems to be orchestrated to fill an opera house. The result is a mild but distinct vulgar streak. That note extends to the sometimes elegant, sometimes overdone costumes by Lindsay W. Davis, and certain elements of Michael Anania’s set.
The backdrops and screens, printed with a vaguely floral pattern, aren’t vulgar, and yet they make the set look like a giant Kleenex box. But this is not a “Little Night Music” that leaves you misty-eyed and nostalgic, reaching for a tissue.