If you want to mount a new Broadway production of A Little Night Music, you’re best to heed advice based on the biggest hit from Stephen Sondheim’s 1973 musical: Send in the movie stars. And so they have, tapping Oscar winner Catherine Zeta-Jones to play the haughty and brazenly adulterous actress Desiree Armfeldt. It’s an inspired choice, since Zeta-Jones’ Hollywood glam buttresses the role’s necessary off-puttingness. And the actress pulls off the challenge, comfortably commanding the stage as if it were just another red carpet to be conquered. While she may not outshine some of Broadway’s best-known divas in the strength or quality of her singing voice (it’s solid, but a little nasal), she sells her numbers as only a great actress can. And her second-act rendition of ”Send in the Clowns” is an emotional tour de force not to be missed. Likewise, Angela Lansbury offers a master class in character acting as Desiree’s ancient mother, Madame Armfeldt, wringing out every poignant beat and punchline.
But this is an ensemble show, following the rising and falling fortunes of four different couples over a weekend in the country in turn-of-the-20th-century Sweden. And since it’s based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night, it can be a bit difficult to embrace these somewhat cold, calculating, frankly Bergmanesque characters: Even a seemingly sympathetic figure like the long-suffering Countess, played here by Erin Davie, resorts to trickery to get even with her callous, philandering husband. That’s why director Trevor Nunn is so smart to cast Zeta-Jones and Lansbury, and also why the energy tends to flag a bit whenever they’re not on stage. Their celebrity throws the show a little out of balance, particularly when some performers — like Ramona Mallory as Anne, the virginal trophy wife of Desiree’s now-middle-aged former lover Fredrik — resort to playing their parts a little too broadly to compensate.
Still, this is an enviable dilemma for most musical revivals: too much star wattage. As the song goes: Isn’t it rich, indeed. Grade: B+
(Tickets: Telecharge.com or 800-432-7250)