Revisiting “A Little Night Music”

I didn’t have plans to revisit the revival of A Little Night Music before Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones’ departures, but much to my surprise I won a contest on BroadwaySpace for a pair of tickets to their final matinee on June 20. I’ve done a lot of final performances, from Bernadette’s Gypsy to The Norman Conquests, so it’s something with which I’m familiar. There is a huge fan base, the cheers are a little louder and longer and the general feeling in the theatre is that of good will. I met up with SarahB and Byrne at Sosa Borella before the show where we dubbed it “Angie Day – Summer Edition” and drank a toast to the star and her day. We headed down to the Walter Kerr, where we met up with fellow ITBA blogger (and Prettybelle enthusiast) Donald from Me2ism. We also had the opportunity to meet our delightful Twitter friend and fellow theatre fan Shari Zeck, who had flown in to see Ms. Lansbury.

Full disclosure: it was a pleasure to be in attendance on this particular performance and in spite of quibbles found myself enjoying the production more the second time, managing to focus on the text and action and mostly forgetting the bland sets, costumes and anemic orchestrations. Getting those quibbles out of the way: Trevor Nunn’s direction is hamfisted, lacking in nuance and full of far too much indicating. Act 1 and Act 2 feel like they were directed by two entirely different people, the former feels like a Lutheran penance, while things pick up considerably in the latter. Erin Davie is still humorless and ineffectual as Charlotte while Leigh Ann Larkin’s accent is still circling the airports of the world.

Catherine Zeta-Jones, fresh off a now notorious Tony performance, is much better than you’d remember based on that telecast but she also never, in my estimation, reached greatness in the part. There are moments when it seems that she’s playing the character of Desiree Armfeldt as the world’s greatest lush, with the idiosyncratic mannerisms of someone secretly taking a nip when no one is looking. Her “Send in the Clowns” stopped the show, but I wasn’t entirely convinced by it (those pregnant pauses – Trevor, how could you?); however, she really shone in the final scene, earning applause when Fredrik and Desiree finally connect (myself included). I think Night Music has one of the most flawless endings in musical theatre history, up there with She Loves Me. Now, mind you I mention these criticisms about her performance, but that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy her this time. At this point, I can only fault the director for the things that didn’t work.

Now onto the good: Hunter Ryan Herdlicka and especially Ramona Mallory have grown in their parts, with more nuance and understanding. Aaron Lazar and Alexander Hanson are still excellent as ever. The Liebeslieders are in excellent voice, and make an impression in spite of the walkography thrust upon them. (What a shame they don’t get to sing the full overture, a glorious piece of music). Keaton Whittaker is still a welcome presence as Fredrika.

And then there’s Angela Lansbury. Lansbury has been the toast of Broadway for so many years and has rightfully earned the status of legend, from Hotel Paradiso onward (to say nothing of her five Tony Awards). I’ve been so fortunate to see her in Deuce and Blithe Spirit, each time amazed that she was returning to Broadway. With her stage renaissance, I had hoped she would play the role of Madame Armfeldt and I am so glad this production made that pipe dream a reality. Out of the three productions, this one outshone the other two. On this last performance, Ms. Lansbury gave the greatest performance I’ve seen from her. On her entrance, which is timed with the applause button for the overture, the ovation grew and grew and lasted what I think must have been between 45 seconds and a full minute. Adulation from everyone in the house; the mere sight of Lansbury in the wheelchair made my heart leap. Her final rendition of “Liaisons” was the most devastating I’ve ever heard in my life, with all respect to Hermione Gingold, Regina Resnik, etc. In the final section of the song, there was unexpected emotion from Ms. Lansbury, as tears came to her eyes. A testament to her unrelenting brilliance: it came from a personal place for her last show, but was also an exceptionally valid acting choice . “Send in the Clowns” got the ovation; but it was “Liaisons” that was the pinnacle of this afternoon’s performance.

At the curtain call, there was a huge ovation as Zeta-Jones and Lansbury stepped forward. It took a couple minutes for Catherine to get the audience to quiet down, finally getting the audience to shut up and sit down. In a moment of pure class, the star dedicated virtually the entire speech to Angela. It was unexpected, honest and a beautiful tribute as those in the house and onstage hopelessly fought back tears. Zeta-Jones got down her knees and bowed down to Angela, who in turn gave a sophisticated curtsy to her co-star. It was a beautiful moment, chock full of emotion. Suffice it to say, I think it was in the back everyone’s minds that this could potentially be the last time Ms. Lansbury, the Queen of Broadway, appears on stage. But the first thing I said to SarahB was “So what do you think Angie will appear in next season?”