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'Music' in the key of blah
Except for Angela Lansbury, this is one wan Sondheim

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 14, 2009

NEW YORK -- An actress radiating youthful vigor and sensuality is not a great fit for Desiree Armfeldt, the soignée Sondheim heroine whose most ravishing days are behind her. So it's an unfortunate truth that Catherine Zeta-Jones is not ideally cast as regretful, wistful Desiree in Trevor Nunn's virtually never-right revival of the suavely farcical "A Little Night Music."

Still, you have to award Zeta-Jones showing-up points. She gives off so many effortless sparks -- those T-Mobile commercials making sport of her in-person allure turn out not to be exaggerations -- that you wonder if she should be credited as part of the lighting design. And anyway, when all is said and done, she is revealed as one of the less ill-suited elements of the production, which opened Sunday night on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre.

The very best working part is five-time Tony winner Angela Lansbury, who as aged, imperious Madame Armfeldt, erstwhile consort to kings and dukes, offers a marvelous, blunt-force comic performance, redolent of professional polish and a keen understanding of how to entertain.

It's an indication of her impact here that Lansbury gets even more applause on her exits than she does on her initial entrance. The joyous reception is no doubt fueled by the sense of deflation that accompanies so much of this tepid treatment of Stephen Sondheim's buoyant, lyrically sophisticated piece, which transposed film director Ingmar Bergman's "Smiles of a Summer Night" into a musical in waltz tempos.

The opportunities were rich for the first major revival of the 1973 original, a show that enshrined Glynis Johns's achingly vulnerable rendition of what might be Sondheim's most famous ballad, "Send In the Clowns." Nunn, the former head of the Royal Shakespeare Company and Royal National Theatre, had a monster success as co-director of "Les Miserables," the teeming musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel.

With the handiwork of Sondheim and librettist Hugh Wheeler, however, he seems far less clued in. For this elegant Scandinavian roundel of amour, of foolish old lovers and foolish young lovers, of characters who couple for sex or for vanity or for an annuity, Nunn takes us on what feels like a cheap date. (The production's origin is London's Menier Chocolate Factory, supplier of the far superior "Sunday in the Park With George" on Broadway in 2008.)

The physical realm is especially grim: a few desultory walls, a few bland sticks of furniture; only David Farley's frocks, particularly for Zeta-Jones, attempt to bottle the sumptuousness that seems an essential aspect of "Night Music." Sure, the rage in musicals these days is to make them quasi-concerts, to bring down the scale and thereby underline what they are really about, the vitality of the words and music. Sometimes, though, the eye wants the stage itself to be a pretty face. You are reminded of this as you watch "Night Music's" "A Weekend in the Country," one of the most satisfying Act 1 finales of all time, and you realize you have only the most physically impoverished notion of where these characters are, and where they are going.

Were the voices astonishing or the characters embodied more skillfully, you might be distracted from the drabness. But this "Night Music" makes far too many unhappy detours into shrillness and even vulgarity: The perverse license taken here with "The Miller's Son," the climactic number sung by the maid, Petra, transforms a celebration of earthier pleasures into a tacky sort of number for tired businessmen. ("Hey, Big Spender," anyone?)

Severe cases of over-emphasized personality tics afflict the performances of Ramona Mallory as the silly young wife of Desiree's former lover Fredrik (a serviceable Alexander Hanson), and of Hunter Ryan Herdlicka's Henrik, Fredrik's lovesick, puritanical son. At least Aaron Lazar and Erin Davie, as the philandering count Carl-Magnus and his cruelly ignored wife, Charlotte, bear closer resemblance to the characters in the script.

The playbill lists only nine musicians; the thinness of orchestral sound confirms the program's accuracy. Some of the numbers, like Lansbury's "Liaisons," ably convey the quality of burnished memory that flows through the musical. Zeta-Jones has a trained-for-showbiz sort of voice that works best for her in "You Must Meet My Wife," the witty Act 1 put-down song she sings with Hanson.

For "Send In the Clowns," though, she doesn't quite have the technique for the voluptuous tone she tries to set. So as with much in this unbalanced affair, you find yourself wishing someone would send in something, anything.

A Little Night Music

Book by Hugh Wheeler, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Directed by Trevor Nunn. Sets and costumes, David Farley; lighting, Hartley T A Kemp; sound, Dan Moses Schreier and Gareth Owen. With Keaton Whittaker, Bradley Dean, Stephen R. Buntrock, Betsy Morgan. About 2 hours 55 minutes. At Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St. Visit http://www.telecharge.com or call 212-239-6200.

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