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Catherine Zeta-Jones in Broadway's 'A Little Night Music': What did the critics think?

December 14, 2009 | 11:12 am

Zeta-jones

The latest movie star to make a Broadway debut this season, Catherine Zeta-Jones is the box-office raison d'etre for the new revival of Stephen Sondheim's and Hugh Wheeler's "A Little Night Music."

The Oscar-winning actress (she was named best supporting actress for her role in "Chicago") comes with more theatrical experience than most Hollywood carpetbaggers. In the United Kingdom, Zeta-Jones performed in numerous musical stage productions before hitting it big with British television and then moving to Hollywood. 

Still, it has been a number of years since the actress has starred in a major stage production and her role of Desirée Armfeldt in the 1973 musical is a challenging one, if only for its iconic place in the history of musical theater.

Co-starring Angela Lansbury, the production comes from Britain's Menier Chocolate Factory theater and is directed by Trevor Nunn. The musical, loosely adapted from the Ingmar Bergman film "Smiles of a Summer Night," follows the intertwining romantic adventures of several Swedish couples set around the turn of the 20th century.

So how did Zeta-Jones fare with New York critics?  

Ben Brantley of the New York Times wrote that Zeta-Jones "brings a decent voice, a supple dancer’s body and a vulpine self-possession" to her Broadway debut. He added that the role's arch banter doesn't come naturally to the actress and faulted her rendition of "Send in the Clowns" for "its all-out emotionalism." As for Lansbury, the critic described her performance as "quite delicious."

The Washington Post's Peter Marks called the production "an unbalanced affair" and wrote that "it's an unfortunate truth that Catherine Zeta-Jones is not ideally cast as regretful, wistful Desirée." He echoed the praise for Lansbury, saying the actress "offers a marvelous, blunt-force comic performance, redolent of professional polish and a keen understanding of how to entertain."

David Rooney of Variety took a more charitable view of Zeta-Jones' performance: "Bewitching, confident and utterly natural, she breathes a refreshing earthiness and warm-blooded sensuality into the part, even if she's directed -- in one of the most tiresome traits of Nunn's production -- to underline every suggestion of sexual innuendo in Wheeler's book."

Bloomberg sourpuss John Simon called the production a "mixed bag" and wrote that Zeta-Jones' performance is "all artifice, whether in the play-within-the-play, in which Desirée is a notorious seductress, or offstage, when she is supposed to be her irresistible self." He added that only Lansbury's performance can be considered a triumph.

Elisabeth Vincentelli of the New York Post wrote that Lansbury steals the show. As for Zeta-Jones, the critic said that "she's radiant, yet doesn't shed much light on Desirée." She added that Nunn's production  "isn't particularly subtle or graceful" and that it lacks "both nuance and energy."

-- David Ng

Photo: Catherine Zeta-Jones, with Alexander Hanson and Aaron Lazar in "A Little Night Music" at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Credit: Joan Marcus

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