Walter Kerr Theatre
Usually when Broadway shows make cast changes, only aficionados notice, said Charles Isherwood in The New York Times. But the replacements for the lead roles in the current production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music happen to be theater legends Elaine Stritch and Bernadette Peters, turning this into one of the hottest tickets of the season. Both stars have “storied histories” in Sondheim productions, and they turn this revival of the 1973 musical into a triumph. When Peters’ Desirée, a past-her-prime 19th-century actress, sings “Send in the Clowns,” her wistfulness is heart-rending. Gradually, you realize you’re witnessing an “indelible moment in the history of musical theater.”
The multifaceted Peters is a “natural fit” for Desirée, said Erik Haagensen in Backstage. She effortlessly captures a woman who’s at once a “scattered diva, caring mother, battling daughter, and enthusiastic lover.” At first, Stritch doesn’t seem equally well-cast, as Madame Armfeldt, Desirée’s mother: The “elegance and hauteur” of the character aren’t a natural match for the actress’ typical persona of a “dryly contemporary broad.” But Stritch adds new layers to Armfeldt, giving an “honest, psychologically acute” performance that makes the wheelchair-bound former courtesan quite possibly the liveliest, most fascinating character of the night.
Together, these actresses make the show a “considerably more satisfying experience” than it was at its December opening, said Michael Feingold in The Village Voice. There was nothing particularly wrong with the original leads, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury. But their performances were overwhelmed by director Trevor Nunn’s crude staging and an austere set that may be the most unattractive ever seen in a Broadway theater. Now, however, all the supporting cast members seem to have a better handle on their parts, and the new stars easily outshine their sparse surroundings. Somehow “everything feels different,” and the result is a production that, for the first time, captures the “romantically bittersweet, sardonically regretful” tone of Sondheim’s musical.