PLAYBILL ON (RE)-OPENING NIGHT: A Little Night Music — All Smiles on a Summer Night

By Harry Haun
August 2, 2010

Meet the first-nighters at the refreshed Broadway staging of A Little Night Music, now starring Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch.

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You don't just sprinkle Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch on a still-standing Broadway show from last season and give them a tinny ta-da!

No, attention must be paid! Consequently, when this two-star extension of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's gossamer sex-comedy, A Little Night Music, officially commenced extra choruses at the Walter Kerr on Aug. 1, its 23 producers deemed the occasion "a soft opening" and took over all three floors of Angus McIndoe to celebrate and bow deeply to these ladies who launch (again).

"Smiles of a Summer Night," Ingmar Bergman's uncharacteristic (if not lone) 1955 comedy on which the show is based, was reflected wall-to-wall on every floor at Angus', lingering from a much-cheered matinee and settling into full party bloom.

The nitty-gritty press particulars were reserved for the top floor. The middle floor was for reserved for the semi/mini-burgers, pigs-in-a-blanket and tonier hors d'oeuvres. And the first floor was, as usual, for seated-to-be-seen celebrity placement.

All evening, stars and cast members trickled down from on high to the main dining area where the light turnout of celebrities, knowing their place, had already settled.

Phyllis Newman and Nancy Schlesinger made themselves right at home there, opting not to make the steep hike upward. They exotically motored over, one-man power, from the theatre in a pedicab. Game gal, our Phyl — and whattamom, crowing that her talented daughter, lyricist Amanda Green, had two shows on the brink of lifting off.

At the theatre, they clucked and trilled appreciatively over the show with Barbara Cook, who sat in front of them and concurred completely. It was clear throughout that Cook got a huge kick out of pal Stritch mining laughs out of lines that never had laughs before — to say nothing of Peters' exquisite rendering of "Send in the Clowns," a tune Cook was more than a little familiar with — having just reprised it in Sondheim on Sondheim. Indeed, last season she was one of two stars who made the Tony running with the help of that gorgeous ballad; the other, of course, is Night Music's Catherine Zeta-Jones, who has taken her Tony and her movie-star hubby and headed for the high ground of big-budget films.

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Elaine Stritch
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN
Mary Tyler Moore skipped the party scene but reportedly stuck her head backstage and gave Peters four barks. (They co-founded the Broadway Barks charity.)

Considerable baying at the moon could be done over Peters' Night Music triumph, and, to hear her tell it, this utterly accidental second-coming of the show came about in the most casual — quite literal "oh, by the way" — manner. "Stephen and I were talking about something else on the phone," she recalled, "and, he went, 'Oh, by the way, the notice just went up today that we're closing. Did they ever call you about replacing Catherine in Night Music?,' and I said, 'No,' and he said, 'Oh, well, I thought you'd be a sensational Desiree.' He called them the next day. Then they called my agent, and that's how the ball got rolling. Then came Elaine.'"

Peters sounded like a Vanities cheerleader about the show: "Stephen said, 'This is just a great book.' He's so right. Audiences just love this show. It's so much fun. And it's a funny book. And it's touching. Then, you get to the cast. Every single one is a primo Broadway performer — they're all fantastic. Then, you get to their voices, which are glorious. Then, you get to the music and the orchestrations. I swear! I sit backstage, going, 'I want to go home and listen to the album. It's so beautiful.' I'm going to get overloaded! Every day I hear music in my head from the show — not my songs."

Just to inject a little leveling note here, that's the rub: "My songs." Yes, she scores and scorches and brain-burns with "Send in the Clowns" — received by a rapt audience, who thanks her thunderously and at length — but that's just about it.

"Send in the Clowns," Sondheim's one certifiable hit, was the last bauble that he added to his rich and bountifully melodic all-waltz score, and it was last because he wrote it specifically to the sound of the voice of the original Desiree Armfeldt, Glynis Johns, who was making a tentative and relatively untaxed attempt at her Broadway musical debut. Those who have followed her in the role in revivals are usually strong singers who are brought up short by its vocal demands — much like Frank Sinatra signing up to play Nathan Detroit in the Guys and Dolls movie and then discovering that they only trusted Sam Levene with "Sue Me."

Ramona Mallory
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN
The song-shortage was naturally not lost on Peters. "When I took Desiree on, I thought, 'Oh it's really just a song and a half.' But then I went, 'No, there's a lot going on in this role, a lot of acting, a lot of book scenes. There's so much to play here.

"It's funny. Even though there aren't other songs, I don't feel I'm missing anything because the arc of the character is so there. The story keeps getting more pronounced, and I keep telling my story, as everyone else tells their story."

Her Desiree is the queen bee of the evening, a barnstorming actress on tour in the Swedish provinces at the turn of the last century, with two swains on her hands — both, of course, married. The swaggering Count Carl-Magnus (Aaron Lazar) has a slightly lighter sentence for his infidelity, having only to contend with his bitterly brittle wife (Erin Davie). Less blessed is a much-older flame, lawyer Fredrik Egerman (Alexander Hanson), who has yet to consummate his marriage to the much-younger Anne (Ramona Mallory), and already his teenage son, Henrik (Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, is taking a serious shine to her — whenever he is not resisting the blowsy frontal enticements of the family maid, Petra (Leigh Ann Larkin). You may want to lie down now.

Were this Feydeau, there would be more doors to slam than this transplant from London's Menier Chocolate Factory permits at the Kerr. But the stage is definitely set for farce, and Sondheim's intricately interwoven first-act finale, "A Weekend in the County," rounds up the above for some bawdy fun 'n' games at the Armfeldt estate.

Lording over the amorous commotion — while blissfully above it all and oblivious to it — is Stritch, an elderly courtesan resting on her, er, laurels and scandalously ill-gotten gains. She is scootered around the premises in a wheelchair that, at the performance I saw, could conceivably have been self-propelled with exit applause.

Leigh Ann Larkin and Hunter Ryan Herdlicka
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN
It doesn't matter that the minute Stritch opens her mouth, you know you're not in Stockholm anymore — and, furthermore, will never be able to get there from here. What matters is that the timing of this infallible actress is still as Swiss-watch pure as ever. She is after the nuggets of life truths that this ancient hussy has accumulated along with her priceless knickknacks. She sometimes seems to be using a jackhammer to get at these truths or at least going a route no one has gone before. Certainly she goes at it the polar opposite of her Tony-nominated predecessor, Angela Lansbury, who opted for a high-end, refined approach to the character.

A co-star Stritch and Lansbury both shared, helped Stritch with this and other roles. In her own ingιnue days, she found herself manning the wheelchair of Dame May Whitty in a summer-stock production of Emlyn Williams' thriller, Night Must Fall. Left alone to her fate with a killer in the house, Whitty was required to say the name of the killer over and over again in every known gradation. "She must have said 'Danny' 16 times, and every time it was with a different kind of emotion," Stritch recalled. "I stood in the wings just watching, learning. I never will forget that."

That example gave her the gumption to go for — and get — an uncharted laugh in "Liaisons," her showstopper, by daring to mispronounce the title. "It's a hard song, musically and in every way to sell to an audience — to make them enjoy it the way they should." If Peters' "Send in the Clowns" removes the roof of the Walter Kerr, it's Stritch's "Liaisons" that loosens the screws. This is why they are Broadway stars.

Stritch's closing moments as Mme. Armfeldt are staged quite differently from Lansbury (by either Trevor Nunn or his assistant director), but neither holds a candle to the luminous image Vanessa Redgrave left in that one-night-only benefit she did with her daughter Natasha in January of 2009. They were planning a reprise for Roundabout at the time of Natasha's death. For all who did not see it, it still remains, hauntingly, The Little Night Music That Might Have Been.

Although he was Olivier-nominated for his lightweight sparring and sparking, the handsome 50-year-old Hanson is still the show's forgotten man, his commendable work upstaged by star wattage in the distaff department. He keeps the show on course, regardless of what Desiree crosses his path. There have been five, maybe six.

"There was Hannah Waddingham in London," he began his inventory, "then Catherine Zeta-Jones and now Bernadette Peters — but then also the understudies in between. So, there was Fiona in London, and there's Jayne Paterson here."

Since there is a heartening scene of welcome in which Desiree opens her dressing gown fully for his eyes only, it begs the question of whether there was ever a Desiree so obliging. He laughed at the suggestion, then a warm, wicked thought crossed his face. "Well, no one flashed me, but there was one who didn't wear a bra."

Save for Desiree's merciful ministrations, his character will have had two whole years of sexual inactivity. "I started rehearsals in London in September or October of 2008. I haven't counted the performances, but it's a lot — about ten months in London, including rehearsals and playing, and here since mid-October. I finish Oct. 3.

"The day after I finish here, I go into rehearsals for An Ideal Husband in London. I'll be playing opposite my wife. We've never worked together before, but we don't play man and wife — worse than that. She's my nemesis, so it could get ugly at home. My wife's Samantha Bond, who was last here in Amy's View with Judi Dench — a David Hare play — she was Amy."

The original Broadway cast continues in support of these two new clowns they've sent in. However, Lazar, who stepped out of the formation to make a very successful cabaret debut last week at Feinstein's, opted to take more vacation time and leave the re-reviews to his understudy, Bradley Dean. He may rue the day.