Enjoying a Period: Costume Musicals, “A Little Night Music” With Catherine Zeta-Jones & “Ernest In Love” Excel On and Off Broadway by Kevin M. Thomas

Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones

Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones in "A Little Night Music"

The London revival of “A Little Night Music” seems to have made a thorough transfer to the Broadway stage, almost intact, and with the addition of a few big names.

Almost a carbon copy (which is a good thing) of last spring’s production of the Stephen Sondheim gem, “Night” has added Catherine Zeta-Jones in the lead role of Desiree and Angela Lansbury as her mother; both more than aptly fill the shoes of their London counterparts.

While the staging and the sets are duplicates of the West End show  – and some of the cast is also in tact most notably Alexander Hanson- the American audiences will welcome this costume musical story of a theatre star, her lover, his wife, her old flame, and a weekend in the country. Period comedies of manners and the caste system have been staged in many ways over the years, but who cares, as long as you’re having fun?

With “Night Music,” the real question here is: does Catherine Zeta-Jones do the show’s most famous number, “Send in the Clowns,” justice? The answer is yes! She proved her singing talent in her Oscar winning role in “Chicago,” but in “Night Music” she proves her voice doesn’t need help from a studio engineer. While not the greatest rendition of the song, Zeta-Jones’ delivery is a perfect culmination of her singing and acting skills.

She is aptly supported by Angela Lansbury. Perhaps one of the easiest parts for Lansbury to play in her 60 year career, she still makes the role her own, and has the effervescent, tonal qualities and nuances to validate her character’s place in society.

The two men vying for Zeta-Jones’ attention, Hanson and Aaron Lazar, are worthy stage adversaries. Both are in fine voice and comedic timing, and handsome enough to captivate someone of Zeta-Jones’ caliber, as well as the audience.

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Noah Racey and Ian Holcomb in "Ernest in Love"

Period musicals of manners and class aren’t limited to Broadway; there’s an excellent revival of the 1960 “Ernest in Love” off-Broadway. Based upon the Oscar Wilde classic, “The Importance of Being Ernest,” this musical deals with an upstanding, uptown man in Victorian England, who leads a double-life in the country. Amidst odd circumstances and mistaken identity, havoc ensues when the young man and his life long friend arrange to meet a couple of women for a weekend in the country. The characters don’t realize what trouble can occur when spending a weekend in the country. But alas, as in “Night Music,” “Ernest in Love” reaches its comedic best when identities and true feelings are revealed.

While the overall score has a nice melody, “Ernest” focuses more on songs of comedic irony vs. hummable pop tunes. Additionally, for an off-Broadway production, the costumes are amazing and authentic, and the production utilizes the small stage in such a way that one doesn’t feel cheated of any grandiose sets that might be in the homes of the upper crust.

The cast includes Noah Racey and Ian Holcomb, who are sublime at matching wits, as they volley acid tongue barbs in speech and in song.

While many musicals have closed in recent times, “Ernest in Love” is certainly one you should seek out. But hurry- its extension off-Broadway seems to be expiring on Feb. 14, 2010. Quite a lovely Valentine for threatre lovers and lovers who want to spend a weekend in the country, but just can’t get away.

Check it out at www.irishrep.org.

For more on “A Little Night Music,” go to:  www.nightmusiconbroadway.com.

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