A Minor Night Music

01/06/2010 4:00 AM |

Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns" has been covered by disparate singers for over thirty years, from Judy Collins to Frank Sinatra, and I heard it many times without ever understanding what its suggestive but opaque visual images were really about. It was only when I saw footage of Glynis Johns singing it in the original production of Sondheim's A Little Night Music that the song became not only comprehensible but powerfully moving, a vulnerable lament for lost time and a clear-sighted, ironic realization of the absurdity and emptiness at the center of a particular woman's life. Sondheim wrote it for Johns's limited, croaking vocal range, so that most of the lines end in a sharp consonant, and she took what he gave her and made each lyric a specific whiplash at herself and at what life had done to her. In recent years, Judi Dench made a respectable, hard stab at "Clowns" without ever eclipsing Johns's preeminence in the role of Desirée Armfeldt, a part first played by the sensual Eva Dahlbeck in Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night (1955). For this new production of A Little Night Music, the first on Broadway since the original, Catherine Zeta-Jones's Desirée is a coarse tigress who looks like she always gets her way; indeed, in some of her early scenes, she suggests Joan Collins camping it up as Alexis Carrington on Dynasty. Zeta-Jones is a great beauty and she holds the stage vigorously, but she's temperamentally unsuited to play her role's essential plangency. Forced into "Send in the Clowns," she delivers the song on a note of petulant anger and even self-deception, but these interesting choices reflect more on her own needs as a performer rather than the demands of the part.

Much has been made of the limited orchestra in this production, which is perhaps an economic necessity at this point on Broadway, but the whole thing seems to have been done on the cheap. The sets by David Farley are barely functional; at one point, a part of the scenery literally creaked as it was being moved. More damagingly, in the final dance, as the men twirled their female partners their shoes squeaked loudly! (Farley is also credited with the costumes, so the creaking and squeaking are at least consistently his.) A wheelchair-bound Angela Lansbury has trouble with her lines at times but otherwise makes a strong showing as Madame Armfeldt, a retired courtesan pre-occupied with former grandeur and imminent death. Like Zeta-Jones, Lansbury is not particularly well-cast in her role; one can imagine them tearing up the place in something with an English music hall setting, but sexy Scandinavian/Sondheim pessimism is not really their dish of tea. Alexander Hanson is also rather too English for the lead male role of Fredrik Egerman, but at least he's suitably virile and dunderheaded, whereas his virgin wife (Ramona Mallory) is one of the most irritatingly busy ingénues in recent memory. Handed Sondheim's superb "Every Day a Little Death," Erin Davie makes far too little of it, but Leigh Ann Larkin takes "The Miller's Son," the show's most complex number, and does a masterful job of putting it over. Larkin seems just as miscast as everyone else at first, more a flaky New Yorker than a juicy Swedish servant, but she hits every single note of "The Miller's Son" with a precision and a delight that suggests that she's been planning her whole life to sing this song on a Broadway stage. If only all the other aspects of this production had been as carefully planned.

(photo credit: Joan Marcus)