If director Trevor Nunn had set out to deliberately produce the worst version of A Little Night Music he possibly could, it would not look significantly different than the lugubrious, heavy-handed, coarse, miscast, and unattractive version currently running at the Walter Kerr Theatre. The set is ugly; much of the cast is too young; the orchestra is way too small; the pacing is off; and it's lit like a tragedy. Stephen Sondheim's and Hugh Wheeler's Night Music is an elegant romantic comedy with an undertone of darkness; Trevor Nunn turns it upside down, with the darkness ascendant and the elegance replaced by in-your-face buffoonery. Poor Ramona Mallory is directed as though Anne is brain-damaged; Leigh Ann Larkin as Petra is charming but reads as though she is in New York in 2010 rather than Sweden 100 years ago; Hunter Ryan Herdlicka is only okay as Henrik; and Aaron Lazar as Count Malcolm has been directed to hold back his glorious voice (why?!). On the other hand, Erin Davie as the Countess does remarkably well with a part she will be ready for in 15 or 20 years, and Alexander Hanson as Fredrik and Keaton Whittaker as Fredrika are both excellent.
Which brings us to Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch. Peters is a star, and she brings all of her star power to the table. In her fourth performance she was already quite comfortable in the role, and her "Send in the Clowns" is wonderful. Her acting, never her strong point, is passable, although it does hurt to see some lovely moments go by untapped. For example, at one point Desiree answers a question about whether she still enjoys her life on tour with "Yes. No. No. Yes." For many actresses, this is a chance to encapsulate Desiree's life and reveal her ambivalence and self-deprecating humor. For Peters it is a chance to say "Yes. No. No. Yes." But, overall, her performance is fun.
To the inevitable question as to whether it is fair to review Elaine Stritch at her fourth performance, I can only ask in return, "Is it fair to charge the audience to see her fourth performance?" Since I paid for my own ticket, I feel I have the right to discuss Stritch's work. Well, here goes: she was terrible. Flat-out terrible. First, she didn't know her lines. The conductor had to yell cues to her. Since she is fond of long pauses, there is constant tension as to whether, at any given moment, she is forgetting a line. However, there is a bigger problem than lack of memory in her performance: she isn't giving one. She's doing her "aren't I cute? I'm Stritch!" thing, and while it may work in some roles, it does not work here--her schtick is an embarrassment. However, the audience ate up everything she did. I get it that people are honoring her whole career, but I still find it galling that she is being rewarded for helping to ruin one of my favorite shows. But, hey, Nunn set the path, so why shouldn't Stritch follow it?