Pants-Down, the Best Musical of the Season

little-night-musicStephen Sondheim: A Little Night Music The usually warranted anxieties and irritations over ill-equipped film actors polluting the Broadway stage can happily be put to rest for the current revival of A Little Night Music. It will come as no surprise that the legendary Angela Lansbury delivers once again, but Catherine Zeta-Jones does something few have done for some time now: makes a leap from film to the stage that we can only hope she will repeat. If you are not familiar with the work of composer Stephen Sondheim, this production presents the perfect opportunity for an introduction. If you already know and love the musical master, then it’s time to treat yourself to an early Christmas present. After years wasted on Webber, director Trevor Nunn has come over to the Sondheim side, capably handling a near-perfect cast of Broadway veterans. Lansbury holds court as Madame Armfeldt, lording over a sea of misguided lovers with undeniable bearing. Even while restricted in a wheelchair, she commands the audience’s attention with even the slightest of gestures; a mere well-paced rise of her eyebrow is enough to incite laughter while telling volumes of her inner thoughts. Zeta-Jones plays on a much broader spectrum but with paralleling precision. Her Desirée is a cloud of boundless energy with sharp, worldly eyes and a smile that beams without illusions. Stage presence is something that’s hard to come by these days, but Zeta-Jones has it in spades from her first entrance, combined with a stunning appearance that doesn’t hurt. Her vocals are powerful, putting all the feeling where it needs to be in the musical’s best-known number, “Send in the Clowns.” Alexander Hanson crafts a Fredrik from the calculations of a lawyer tempered with the experience of age and the longings for all that could have been. His performance is wonderfully human, an understandable man in an unfavorable situation. Aaron Lazar manages the misogyny of Carl-Magnus with comic subtlety, keeping a straight face while declaring his unflagging fidelity to Desirée as well as his devoted wife. Charlotte, the devoted wife, is well played by Erin Davie, who breathes the degrading position of her character with sincerity and biting humor. Leigh Ann Larkin cuts a seductive Petra, beaming with unbridled sexuality, just barely missing the full, epic potential of “The Miller’s Son” by inches. All sing the demanding musical score with strength and emotion, easing into the beautiful sounds with a comfort and yearning that flows over into the house. Sexual frustration was never so much fun. This cast only comes up short twice. Ramona Mallory, playing a ridiculous Anne Egerman, disrupts the otherwise firmly established mood of nuance and innuendo with forced vocals and the kind of overacting that must have garnished her praise in college productions. Hunter Ryan Herdlicka’s Hendrik is flawed to a lesser degree, but still misses much of the humor hidden in his role. David Farley’s set design, composed of door-like panels fitting for a farce, is simple, functional, and elegant. His costume design follows form, adorning the men with sharp suits and decorating the women with slimming gowns and frocks, all begging to be unwrapped so as to expose the naked bodies beneath. As sexy as it is classy, this production is high art composed of the most basic, natural urges that have made life complicated for mankind since we started walking upright. A Little Night Music gives support to the argument that it’s sometimes better to handle matters while lying down. - C. Jefferson Thom A Little Night Music is playing at the Walter Kerr Theater, 219 West 48th Street, NY NY, through June 20. (Catherine Zeta-Jones will not appear from 2/16 through 2/21 and from 3/30 through 4/4.) cj_thomMr. Thom lives in New York City and walks dogs, writes plays, and loves dissecting pop culture.