Even without the rest of its shimmering score, the joyous tying together of all the disparate love plots in the act one finale, “A Weekend in the Country,” would ensure “A Little Night Music” its place among the musical theater greats. In that song, Anne bitterly rhymes her rival Desiree Armfeldt with “She may hope to make her charm felt.” Charm should glow throughout this story of sex and sensuality, but that’s exactly what’s missing from Trevor Nunn’s disappointingly effortful revival.
With its devious, delicious plot of masters, mistresses and servants spinning around a husband losing his son to his own wife while gaining his lover and his life, this turn-of-the-century confection is all about timing. Nunn’s woefully underlit, whisper-in-the-dark opening sequence indicates this as a remembrance of times past. What it doesn’t need is a near-Proustian running time of three hours.
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Proof that something is amiss comes in the balance of sympathies. In the performance of the night, a sweetly bruised, relaxed Alexander Hanson is deeply touching as foolish Frederik. However, that role is traditionally second-fiddle to his lover Desiree, who has far more emotional material.
Casting Hannah Waddingham (London’s original Lady of the Lake in “Monty Python’s Spamalot”) as Desiree is central to Nunn’s vision. A strikingly beautiful 34-year-old, Hannah is a generation younger than Glynis Johns was when she created the role. Nunn argues in the program that this is closer to Ingmar Bergman’s original movie, “Smiles of a Summer Night,” on which Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler based the show.
But Bergman’s script didn’t mention Frederik walking out of Desiree’s performance as Hedda Gabler more than 14 years earlier — when this Desiree would have been a teenager. And when, at the climax of her 11 o’clock number “Send in the Clowns,” she laments “losing my timing this late in my career,” the moment is dulled because she looks as if she’s decades away from retirement.
With the exception of Kaisa Hammarlund’s well-grounded, strongly sung Petra, most of the supporting roles are under- or overplayed.
Gradations of class are crucial to the piece but almost everyone — including Maureen Lipman’s reproving and sour Mme. Armfeldt — adopt unconvincing accents in awkward attempts to indicate upper-class status. These overworked performances blur the edges of a script that flies when played with comic precision. Almost everyone pauses noticeably ahead of each line to set up a thought, then pauses again to (over)indicate each fresh thought.
The evening’s musical elements are considerably stronger. Jason Carr’s pellucid re-orchestrations for seven players on individual strings, woodwind and harp offer more than a nod to Ravel and Debussy — both major influences on Sondheim’s score. Carr’s airy textures and the cast’s clear diction allow the extraordinarily precise word-setting to land musico-dramatic moments with aplomb. But they are certainly capable of handling faster tempi than the frankly sluggish ones largely on display here.
Things are slowed further still by the restoration of “Silly People,” the second-act number sung by Mme. Armfeldt’s manservant Frid (Jeremy Finch). Wisely excised from the original production during Boston tryouts, it has never since been included. Sadly, the song adds nothing other than the redundant observation of its title, sandbagging the action just at the point where the farce plot needs to keep moving.
In its last London revival in 1995, the show struggled on the National Theater’s wide-open Olivier stage. The possibility of finessing the qualities of what could so easily be a chamber musical, combined with Nunn’s experience, should have produced a winner in this Menier Chocolate Factory revival. The production doesn’t detract from the work’s greatness, but beneath the glorious writing there’s more than a whiff of missed opportunity.