What a difference a diva makes. Bernadette Peters steps into the six-month-old revival of “A Little Night Music” with a transfixing performance, playing it as if she realizes her character’s onstage billing — “the one and only Desiree Armfeldt” — is cliched hyperbole. By figuratively rolling her eyes at the hype, Peters gives us a rich, warm and comedically human Desiree, which reaches full impact when she pierces the facade with a nakedly honest, tears-on-cheek “Send in the Clowns.”
Trevor Nunn’s cut-down production of the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler classic — conceived for the 160-seat Menier Chocolate Factory in London — encountered some critical reservations when it opened in the fall. But it proved box office gold thanks to the draw of Catherine Zeta-Jones playing Desiree, accompanied by Angela Lansbury as her ex-courtesan mother, and the show grossed more than $24 million in 30 weeks.
Now, with Peters and Elaine Stritch in the cast, this new edition of “Night Music” transforms a lackluster revival with an alchemy similar to Reba McEntire’s reinvigoration of the 1999 “Annie Get Your Gun” — ironically, originally starring Peters.
Stritch wields a sharp comedic scalpel. During the first of three critics’ performances, she showed evidence of her widely reported memory lapses in her one solo, “Liaisons,” a five-minute tune that appeared tortuous to her, though expert musical director Rob Bowman managed to keep the band treading music until Stritch found her way. But the rest of her performance is sparklingly, devilishly good.
Whether due to six months of playing or keyed-up intensity from the presence of the new stars, the continuing cast shows a marked improvement. Alexander Hanson, as poor old Frederik the lawyer, is now a first-class leading man; instead of gamely supporting Zeta-Jones, he is now engaged in a delicious battle of acting chops. Aaron Lazar and Erin Davie, as Carl-Magnus and Charlotte, respectively, have grown from sturdy to delicious. Leigh Ann Larkin’s vulgar delivery of “The Miller’s Son,” though, remains out of place in an otherwise fine production on all levels.