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Lansbury, Zeta-Jones make beautiful 'Night Music'

Angela Lansbury, left, as Madame Armfeldt, Catherine Zeta-Jones

Angela Lansbury, left, as Madame Armfeldt, Catherine Zeta-Jones as Desirée Armfeldt, and Keaton Whittaker as Fredrika Armfeldt in a scene from, "A Little Night Music," at Walter Kerr Theatre in NYC. Credit: Handout

'A Little Night Music" is one of the most delectable musicals ever written, by Stephen Sondheim or anyone else. Angela Lansbury is giving a performance that deserves to be part of theater legend. Catherine Zeta-Jones is earthy and poignant in her confident Broadway debut.

With all that, it is easier to live with - if not really forgive - the visual drabness and heavy hand of this gorgeous musical's first revival since its Tony-winning 1973 premiere. Director Trevor Nunn's skimpy production, conceived last year for London's tiny Meniere Chocolate Factory, arrives with another of those scandalously reduced orchestras that Broadway producers try to pass off these days as innovation.

But enough unpleasantness, at least for now. "Night Music" is a sinfully witty and grown-up sexual tragic-farce about contrapuntal affairs in turn-of-last-century Sweden. Sondheim and author Hugh Wheeler were loosely inspired by Ingmar Bergman's 1955 film, "Smiles of a Summer Night," when the sun never sets. Despite the distant setting and the deceptive romance of Sondheim's luscious waltzes, the sensibilities are as modern and immediate as the push-pull power of contrary desires.

Zeta-Jones, who won an Oscar in the musical "Chicago," has a strong, handsome voice and, despite a few curious accents, returns "Send in the Clowns" from cliche to exquisite art song. She plays Desiree, the worldly actress, with the slight swagger of a dancehall girl, a bit of vulgarity that wouldn't seem to coexist with the elegance of the character. But Zeta-Jones, in long auburn hair and curvy gowns, makes us believe that Desiree's rebellious side is grounded in vulnerability.

It is hard to believe she's the daughter of Lansbury's imperiously dry and delicious Madame Armfeldt, the aged courtesan of royalty, though they do share a sardonic streak. Lansbury, in a white wig as tall as Marge Simpson, articulates Sondheim's devastatingly clever lyrics with the dazzling precision we cherish from her creation of Mrs. Lovett in "Sweeney Todd."

Alexander Hanson, the only holdover from London, is wonderfully debonair and genuine as Fredrik, Desiree's former lover, now disastrously married to an 18-year-old virgin, overplayed with annoying childishness by Ramona Mallory. Aaron Lazar and Erin Davie are aptly delightful and horrid as Desiree's lover and his wife. Hunter Ryan Herdlicka has the shriek of a repressed adolescent as Fredrik's son and Leigh Ann Larkin makes a tough libidinous Petra, the maid.

But Nunn goes for coarseness over subtlety. The minimal set has panels of frosted glass that look more like dirty windows. And for a story driven by the magic of otherworldly sunlight, the place is awfully dark.

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