BY MICHAEL SOMMERS
Looking as elegant as the musical she graces, Catherine Zeta-Jones makes a smashing Broadway debut in a wistful revival of "A Little Night Music."
Co-starred with the redoubtable Angela Lansbury as her imperious old mama in a romantic comedy set in early 1900s Sweden, Zeta-Jones portrays Desiree, a middle-aged actress who gets a second chance at true love with a former flame.
Unfortunately, the similarly attracted Fredrik (an excellent Alexander Hanson) is recently wed to a still-virginal teenager while Desiree herself is entangled with a jealous military officer. These characters and other interested parties converge for a weekend at a country estate where intrigue, seductions and a game of Russian roulette transpire during a hectic summer night.A sophisticated musical in every respect — don't take anyone under the age of, say, 30 — "A Little Night Music" boasts a wry, well-turned text by Hugh Wheeler and an exceptionally lovely score by Stephen Sondheim that wafts the bittersweet story along in lilting waltz time.
A multi-award-winning hit in 1973, the musical since has been staged by New York City Opera, but the new production that opened Sunday at the Walter Kerr Theatre marks its first time back on Broadway.
Crafted as a chamber piece with less than a dozen characters and a four-member vocal ensemble, "A Little Night Music" is directed by Trevor Nunn in a particularly intimate fashion. Expect not a ton of fancy scenery and spectacular 1900s costumes. Staged more as a rueful comedy with music, this show unfolds quietly against a flexible setting of duskily mirrored panels that later opens to disclose a modest view of birch trees.
During the opening moments, as characters appear in dark period clothes on a shadowy stage, one fears that Nunn's approach may prove to be more Strindberg than Sondheim in manner, but this gloomy atmosphere is quickly relieved by the witty nature of the "Now"/ "Later"/ "Soon" trio of interconnected solos that gets the plot underway.
Then Zeta-Jones materializes and her undeniably luminous Desiree gives the entire show a glow. She moves beautifully, acts the comedy scenes neatly, suggests the character's mid-life pathos believably and sings rather nicely. Certainly Zeta-Jones' hushed, contemplative rendition of the musical's best-known song, "Send in the Clowns" — performed with a smile and a hint of tears as Desiree reflects upon her muddled existence — will be treasured by anyone who sees it.
Zeta-Jones is handsomely partnered by Hanson, a British actor also making his Broadway debut, whose good-natured Fredrik still manages to be urbane while being painfully aware of his flaws. Playing a character a bit beyond his years as the green-eyed dragoon, Aaron Lazar etches a sharp portrait of a dimwit.
Supremely confident in a juicy role originated by Hermione Gingold, Lansbury depicts a rich, retired courtesan with the grandeur of a duchess and an incisive way with observations such as "To lose a lover or even a husband or two during the course of one's life can be vexing. But to lose one's teeth is a catastrophe." Lansbury expresses the lady's reflective aria "Liaisons" with more disdain for the present generation's indiscriminate affairs than nostalgia over her past triumphs.
Another high point of the show is an unusually heartfelt performance of "Every Day a Little Death" by Erin Davie as the soldier's martyred wife and Ramona Mallory as Fredrik's foolish child bride.
Scarcely a dancing show in spite of its waltzes, the production moves smoothly at a leisurely pace that allows one to savor the words, music and evolving mix of emotions. Prettily orchestrated for a small musical ensemble, these lighter arrangements (and crisp sound design) permit Sondheim's ingenious lyrics to be appreciated easily.
Not everyone will enjoy the deliberate moodiness of this revival. Still, like the black gown Lansbury initially wears — gleaming with tiny brilliants on its bodice — the pensive quality suffusing Nunn's low-keyed production serves admirably as a background for a wonderfully iridescent score and a thoroughly adult story.
"A Little Night Music" continues an open-end run at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St., New York. Call (212) 239-6200 or visit www.nightmusiconbroadway.com.