Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Based on Ingmar Bergman's Film
Smiles of a Summer Night
Directed by Trevor Nunn
Starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Angela Lansbury and Alexander Hanson
Walter Kerr Theatre

Reviewed by David Spencer

If you’ve never seen A Little Night Music performed well, if you missed its 1973 debut production, or have been jonesing for it in the absence of any Broadway revivals and the infrequency of the New York City Opera version (that debuted in 1990 for a few weeks and reappeared for a few weeks in 2003), or if you missed the truly lovely, low-key staging last March at the White Plains Performing Arts Center…if your being rooted to NYC and environs has left you deprived or starved of this elegant Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical about the follies, foibles and unwitting victories of romance, based on Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night…by all means visit the Walter Kerr Theatre. For in that context, the new revival—Broadway’s—really does no harm. The show is delivered accurately, the singing respectable and better, the sweeping score represented, I guess, as well as it might be, given a reduced orchestration (this imported production originated in England’s Menier Chocolate Factory, which has made a specialty of producing big musicals using limited resources)…there’s nothing here to make those in need feel cheated of having had a decent-enough Night Music in their theatre-going lives at least once.

                        But if I’m not jumping for joy, that’s because director Trevor Nunn, though a more than able helmsman, as his long and illustrious career would attest, seems not to have a natural affinity for the easy-lob verbal rhythms and physical understatement of light comedy. There’s significant “pushery” here, as if turning up the gain or intensity on librettist Hugh Wheeler’s jokes makers them funnier. This extends also to interpolating illustrative bits of business; for example, when the quintet catalogs elements of “The Glamorous Life”, they are made to look around in dismay on the lyric “half-empty houses” or affect an elderly posture for “ancient admirers” or put on eek! expressions for “mice in the hallway.” Mr. Nunn likewise infuses even self-evident dramatic moments with unnecessary histrionics.

                        It’s called “explaining the jokes,” and though it’s meant to enhance, it distracts, making for off-center role interpretations too, because it forces intended subtext to the surface (i.e. it’s hard to appreciate the Countess using barbed wit to mask her pain when poor Erin Davie is encouraged to deliver her lines with engorged emotion—sans mask). Thus almost every portrait from an able cast—including Catherine Zeta-Jones’ Desiree and weirdly even Angela Lansbury’s droll Mme Armfeldt—stays at an ill-tuned pitch of urgency. The only exceptions are Alexander Hanson’s Frederick—somehow he maintains his wry reserve—and Aaron Lazar’s Count Carl-Magnus, because the Count naturally exists in a state of melodramatic pomposity.

                        Again: nobody’s disaster nor shame. Night Music is in safe enough hands. It’s just not in the best hands. And one would have hoped, after all this time…

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