Star vehicles can be a mixed bag on Broadway: It’s thrilling to see the people many of us dream about, but it can be disappointing too. There’s a little of both sides in the newest revival of A Little Night Music, which stars Catherine Zeta-Jones and the 84-year-old Angela Lansbury in the musical that is probably Stephen Sondheim’s most sumptuous work.
Staged by superstar director Trevor Nunn (Cats, Les Miserables), this Little Night Music floats on some of that star power and is mired in it as well. When the production works, though – and that’s most of the time – it’s magnetic, with beautiful costumes and set, gorgeous voices and the chance to see some terrific actors at the top of their form.
Count among them Alexander Hanson, the British actor who played this role for Nunn in London, whose Fredrik Egerman – substantial, grounded, yet beautifully light – is the most compelling I’ve ever seen in the role.
And count among them Angela Lansbury, who plays the imperious Madame Armfeldt as if she is creating the part. Lansbury delivers familiar lines as if they were brand new, and she has so much wit and panache that it’s hard now to imagine anyone else in the role.
It’s a beautifully cast show, beginning with the fact that the actors who play Anne and Henrik (Ramona Mallory and Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, making their Broadway debuts) actually do look very young and foolish; Keaton Whitaker, who plays the preadolescent Fredrika, has exactly the grave wisdom she should. Aaron Lazar, whom I remember as a fine Fabrizio in The Light in the Piazza, is a stitch as Count Carl-Magnus, as funny and dull-witted a Carl-Magnus as I’ve seen. (And you really must see him in his archery attire.)
My quibble with the production is how Nunn seems to have encouraged some of his actresses to go larger than life, from the way Leigh Ann Larkin’s sharp Petra practically mimes the sex act in “The Miller’s Son” to the one-shade-too-close-to-hysteria manner that Mallory gives Anne.
It’s all a bit much, and it’s especially much to see the lovely Zeta-Jones go into actressy overdrive – striking poses, making faces and inserting so much business that you wonder if she’s ever still. Zeta-Jones can be funny and, when given a chance, gives off a lovely sense of gravity. But that comes too seldom, and it’s too offset by her playing to the back of the theater (or maybe somewhere across 48th Street). Too bad she hasn’t listened to Desiree Armfeldt’s good sense.
(Photos: Top left: Angela Lansbury, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Keaton Whittaker. Middle left: Alexander Hanson and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Lower left: Hunter Ryan Herdlicka and Ramona Mallory. Lower right: Alexander Hanson, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Lazar. Photos by Joan Marcus.