“The smile for the fools was particularly broad tonight,” says Madame Armfeldt near the end of “A Little Night Music,” now receiving a ravishing, rueful, and worldly-wise revival on Broadway. This has long been my favorite musical, but Trevor Nunn’s focused and intimate direction has given it a newly bittersweet resonance that gently illuminates our inherently human romantic foolishness.
If we’re lucky, the show teaches us that through all our bumbling and fumbling, we find our way to the truth about ourselves; if we learn to laugh at it, the night will smile at us. Our follies come at a cost; there is solace to be found in a more mature passion that brings us peace and pleasure we could not imagine in our youth. The lessons may be new to us, but the night has seen it all countless times, which is why it smiles — once for the young, once for the fools, and once for the old.
The revival of “A Little Night Music” shines — stars and all
This has always been a musical for grown-ups, and in paring it down to a chamber production, Nunn has focused on Hugh Wheeler’s book, which comes through more strongly than in any other production I’ve seen (and that’s lots). If Chekhov or Ibsen had written a bedroom farce, this is the show that would have resulted, and that’s intended as high praise. There is comedy to be sure, but it is the comedy of character and human failing that so entranced Chekhov; it demonstrates our yearning to break free and be truly ourselves that filters through Ibsen.
Sondheim’s score remains a masterpiece, but here the songs are acted rather than sung; while taking nothing away from the quality of the singing, this makes the production work as a coherent whole. The delicate arc of the story and its essential simplicity — a man marries a woman too young for him, realizes he should be with the woman to whom he is truly matched, while that woman finds her heart, and jealous lovers, romantic kids, and a wise dowager swirl around them — allows the greater themes and mordant observations to come to the fore. This is a show about not merely accepting reality, but embracing it, and finding that while joy is never unalloyed, life offers rewards when we acknowledge that we can no more control it than the rising or setting of the sun.
Catherine Zeta-Jones is luminous as Desirée Armfeldt, an actress on the cusp of 40, who has lived in a whirlwind of lights and lovers, but who now wonders if there isn’t something a little more to be had in life. Zeta-Jones has perfect command of every moment of her performance, and playing Desirée a decade younger than it is usually cast, conveys the sense of evolution and choice as she moves forward.
Her performance of “Send in the Clowns,” the best-known song in the piece, is a full-on soliloquy that one hears anew as the character emerges as a new and wiser woman. It is ultimately not Zeta-Jones’ beauty that is so compelling; rather, the way she inhabits the character makes it virtually impossible to take one’s eyes off her.
As her love interest, Fredrik, Alexander Hanson is wonderful. Like Desirée, it is only when he gives up his image of himself that he can become himself. Hanson plays the transition with grace and humor. Together, Fredrik and Desirée are the fools the night smiles on, even as they leave their foolishness behind, we hope.
Ann, Frederik’s 18-year-old virginal wife, is played with perfect effusiveness by Ramona Mallory, and she ultimately finds love appropriate for her time of life in the arms of Frederik’s son, Henrik, a wonderful Hunter Ryan Herdlicka. The night smiles on Henrik and Anne as they move from youth into being fools.
In supporting roles, the always-exceptional Erin Davie is sensational as Charlotte, and the equally gifted Aaron Lazar is perfect as her husband, Count Carl-Magnus, Desirée’s jealous lover.
Angela Lansbury is a sensation as Madame Armfeldt, Desirée’s mother. Her song, “Liaisons,” is worth the price of admission alone, and Lansbury captures the many subtle layers of the character, who stands in a unique position as the world is changing. A woman who made her fortune through strategically selected lovers, she watches the silliness of the young, but can’t help wondering whether or not she lost something as well. When the night last smiles for the old, we feel the ending of an age.
Delightfully, wherever you may fit on the young-fool-old continuum, joy and revelation await you in this extraordinary production.
A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC
Walter Kerr Theatre
219 W. 48th St.
Tue. at 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.
Wed., Sat. at 2 p.m.; Sun. at 3 p.m.