Send in the Stars

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bernadette peters and elaine stritch make 'night music'

by mark peikert

what a difference a few months and two new cast members make. when i saw trevor nunn's production of stephen sondheim and hugh wheeler's a little night music last december, i was blown away by both catherine zeta-jones-who ended up winning a tony award for her performance as actress desirée armfeldt-and alexander hanson, as her married former lover fredrik. the rest of this elegiac musical about lust and love, set in turn-of-the-last-century sweden, felt serviceable at best, and egregious at worst. having just seen the show with bernadette peters stepping in for zeta-jones and elaine stritch replacing angela lansbury, i still maintain that the revival is less than sparkling, but for different reasons.

take ramona mallory, for instance. the actress plays fredrik's virginal, much-younger wife, and when i saw the show last year i wrote that her giggly delivery "is rather like watching taylor swift take the broadway stage." now, her performance has either been freed from the shadow of zeta-jones or blossomed into something fuller, because mallory is consistently one of the evening's bright spots.

everyone else remains more or less the same (leigh ann larkin is still excruciating as anne's maid petra, uncertain of whether she should play the character with a midwestern or cockney accent), but the flaws in nunn's production are highlighted the second time around. the monochromatic set and glacial pace leave one impatient; this is, after all, a show about a famous actress, so why are the costumes all in white, black and shades of gray? and despite desirée's repeated references to the "farce" of a weekend in the country with her lover (aaron lazar), his wife (erin davie), fredrik and anne, nunn has directed the show as if it were a languid noel coward comedy.

as for peters, she's a much-missed theatrical icon who gives an assured, sometimes very funny performance, but just as often slips into self-parody, drawling her lines in an over-the-top bernadette peters impression. erasing memories of zeta-jones' misguided, hammy rendition of "send in the clowns," peters looks both fabulous and relaxed, which must come as a relief to her after her last broadway stage appearance as mama rose in gypsy seven years ago.

which leaves us with stritch, who turns the role of desirée's aged former courtesan mother inside out. gone is lansbury's doddering, imperious interpretation, replaced instead with stritch's innate good, common sense. stritch eschews all semblance of calculating charisma, making madame armfeldt into a woman who seems relieved to have abandoned the pretence of kindness and flattery. instead, she's sharp, aggressive and angry, her company manners planed away by the years. speak-singing the song "liaisons," stritch nails the comedy and the bitter regret at the way things have turned out, both for the world and for herself. by turns wistful, giddy and furious, the song becomes a tour de force of personality over the ravages of time, a testament to the survival skills of both the character and the actress. sure, stritch is giving us a modified version of herself, but isn't that what becomes a legend the most?


open run, walter kerr theater, 219 w. 48th st., 212-239-6200; $52?$137.

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