The summer nights in New York are now smiling broader than ever. A luminescent new star has taken the reins of A Little Night Music and has wholly revitalized what was once a lugubrious affair. The excitement among the theatre crowd has been considerably high since it was announced that Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch would be replacing Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury in the Broadway revival. Peters is giving the stage performance of a lifetime as the one and only Desiree Armfeldt, bringing the desperately needed Midas touch to a rather colorless staging. I all but hated the production when I attended its first preview (save for Lansbury, naturally), but with the addition of Peters, this Night Music is now a must-see.
Peters’ performance is a master class in poise, finding humor and humanity in her portrayal of the aging actress looking to settle down. But, not only is she bringing her A-game, but she is bringing out the best in those around her. Her relationship with Alexander Hanson’s Fredrik is loose, flirtatious and sexy and eminently more believable. With Peters running the show, you see why the men are drawn to her, but also understand her desperation to settle down with her family. From an acting perspective I was impressed with the choices she was making – unexpected, original and wholly valid; not only is she likable, you want to stand and cheer for her by the finale. Everyone has that level of ease and for the first time it feels like a genuine ensemble onstage at the Walter Kerr. To say the production is better would be a colossal understatement; it’s like night and day. The change is especially apparent in the first act, which previously felt like Lutheran penance but is now a more breezy (if not brisk) farcical set-up. The knives were always there, but the whipped cream was lacking – it is now more balanced, more nuanced and more satisfying.
Then there’s “Send in the Clowns.” The delicate, intimate musical scene is one of the most anticipated in the entire canon. Not only was it the highlight of this revival, but it may be the greatest thing I’ve ever seen Bernadette Peters do – and that includes her superlative “Rose’s Turn” from the 2003 revival of Gypsy. Desiree and Fredrik sit on her bed as she makes the leap, risks everything for love only to have her dreams shattered right in front of her. Peters’ acting in the scene was truly remarkable. Between her beauty and nuance, it was impossible not to watch her as she listened, reacted and ultimately interrupted with Sondheim’s most famous song, tears streaming down her porcelain cheeks (and I might add, of most of the people around me). With Peters at the helm, the scene becomes the emotional apex of the show, as it should be (with Lansbury, it was “Liaisons”), a quiet showstopper that will continue to haunt you long after you’ve left the theatre.
Elaine Stritch has also joined the company, replacing Angela Lansbury in the role of Madame Armfeldt, Desiree’s imperious mother and former courtesan. Stritch delivers her lines as well as her one major solo (“Liaisons”) with a brittle, no nonsense approach, delivering one liners with blunt honesty and the driest of wit. The actress doesn’t quite have all her lines, but she manages to make those moments work as though they were a genuine product of age. Understudy Bradley Dean was on for Aaron Lazar at the performance I attended and is even funnier and more in tune with the character than Lazar.
The rest of the company remains the same yet they’ve all made vast improvements, over the course of a mere month. Ramona Mallory is more restrained, and Hunter Ryan Herdlicka is bringing more clarity to Henrik’s hilariously over-the-top self loathing. The most pleasant surprise: Erin Davie has finally found her Charlotte. Davie is starting to get the laughs she’s missed before, has stopped playing Charlotte as a victim and the growth is exceptional. Leigh Ann Larkin’s accent still makes little sense, but even she is finding depth that wasn’t apparent a month ago. This was my first time seeing Katherine McNamara as the uncanny, wise beyond her years Fredrika and she is superb (the children hired for this production are exceptional). The Liebeslieders are, of course, marvelous, though I wish the silly “sway-ography” (only way I can describe it) they perform at the top of the “Night Waltz” would be cut. (I still miss the real overture).
For the record, I still hate Nunn’s hamfisted direction, those hideous sets (I really want to take a bottle of Windex to those mirrors), costumes and orchestrations, but this time the misguided scenography didn’t bother me. It’s by no means an ideal production, but when Desiree is well cast, very little else matters. Everything is better because of Bernadette. The ensemble finally feels like an ensemble and it should only grow better and stronger with each performance. The final preview for Bernadette and Elaine ran a bit longer than that never-ending first preview, but the hours seemed to pass in an instant. I only wish the producers opened with Bernadette in the first place. Peters and Stritch are contracted until November. Trust me, if you miss this star turn you’ll regret it for years to come.