It is lucky enough when a replacement cast can match the original one; it is more than serendipitous when the newcomers surpass their predecessors. That is the case with “A Little Night Music,” which resumes after a recess, with Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch taking over for Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury, respectively.
Recall that “A Little Night Music” is Hugh Wheeler’s adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night,” with a score by Stephen Sondheim -- a Broadway hit in 1973, a failed movie in 1978 and variously revived since. This austerity production, directed by Trevor Nunn, did well in London in 2008, transferred to New York and, among other things, earned Zeta- Jones a Tony Award for her performance as the celebrated stage actress Desiree Armfeldt.
Set in Sweden, circa 1900, it is the story of lawyer Fredrik Egerman and his still virginal child-wife Anne; of Fredrik’s unhappy theology-student son, Henrik, in love with his coeval stepmother; of Desiree, currently mistress to the arrogant officer Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, and of the count’s mostly neglected wife, Charlotte.
Also of Desiree’s imperious mother, Madame Armfeldt, a former courtesan of international repute, now mentoring Fredrika, Desiree’s illegitimate teen-age daughter, whom the thespian-despising old lady co-opted while the actress is touring all over Sweden.
There is, further, Anne’s feisty and sexually experienced maid, Petra, as well as a chorus of two men and three women, the Weekenders, weaving in and out of the action. Fredrik becomes reinvolved with his old flame Desiree, and amorous and jealous imbroglios climax during a tempestuous house party at Madame Armfeldt’s country estate.
The Wheeler book, which retains much of Bergman’s screenplay while adding a good deal of his less than equal own, depends mostly on Sondheim’s music and lyrics, which are of prime quality. The music is mostly waltz or waltzlike, sometimes verging on folk ballad, as in “The Miller’s Son,” or turning classic show tune as in the ever-popular “Send in the Clowns.”
Peters continues to be the ageless, adorable living doll we treasure, though despite some uncustomary mugging this is not exactly what the Sarah Bernhardtish Desiree calls for. But it is a vast improvement over her predecessor, especially in the delivery of “Send in the Clowns,” which here is thoughtful and understated rather than brashly self-indulgent.
Lansbury, a true artist, was a fine Madame Armfeldt. But Stritch is both actress and personality, and her highly idiosyncratic gestures, intonations and pauses add a whole comically offbeat subtext to the role. British import Alexander Hanson is now an even more relaxed and worldly Fredrik Egerman, Aaron Lazar a more autocratically domineering Count, Erin Davie a fulgently embittered Countess, and Leigh Ann Larkin, a savvy, saucy Petra.
But whereas Hunter Ryan Herdlicka is a suitably naive and impassioned Henrik, Ramona Mallory’s Anne is a somewhat less than irresistible ingenue. The Weekenders constitute a winning ensemble, and Bradley Dean, in the underwritten role of Madame Armfeldt’s valet, does what he can.
The scaled-down scenery and tasteful costumes of David Farley contribute handsomely, and Nunn’s staging is subtly incisive. The reduced orchestra under Rob Bowman does manfully by Jason Carr’s judicious orchestrations, and for Lynne Page’s spare but sufficient choreography. Over nearly four decades since its premiere, I have come to appreciate the show a good deal more than I originally did.
At the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th St. Information: +1-212-239-6200; hhtp://www.telecharge.com Rating: ***
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(John Simon is the New York drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this column: John Simon in New York at email@example.com.