After seeing the show I turned to Michael Feingold for guidance, and found him bang on as usual:
Sampling dessert wine from a king's cellar, the dinner guests at elderly Madame Armfeldt's château sit on the floor. No wonder the old lady bemoans, in her song "Liaisons," the disappearance of style, skill, forethought, discretion, passion, and craft. She could easily be reviewing the show she's in.An irresistible joke (Brantley makes it too), but exactly right. He goes on:
Some of this downgrading might be forgivable (OK, the dinner party's a picnic) if Nunn's direction didn't push so crudely at every point. When Egerman, half asleep, murmurs Desiree's name, Nunn has him sit bolt upright in bed and bellow it. "The Miller's Son" is deprived of its context; Leigh Ann Larkin, as Petra, simply marches downstage and belts it at us. Rushed gabbling through the verses of "The Glamorous Life," Zeta-Jones is then asked to sledgehammer the gag lines in "You Must Meet My Wife" at the audience.He put his finger on exactly what irritated me most about the musical staging in "Now/Later/Soon" and "The Glamorous Life." Catherine Zeta-Jones has stage presence and comic timing, but when it comes to the songs she would have benefitted from the amateur director's best friend: slavish adherence to the original cast recording. Someone should have said to her, Listen to how Glynis Johns or Jean Simmons handles "The Glamorous Life" and then do thou likewise.
However, I'm not sure I understand what he means about "The Miller's Son" being deprived of context -- except in that the rest of the production has such a weak presence that it doesn't provide a context. Here the number has nothing concrete to stand in contrast to or comment on. In my estimation, however, it was the high point of the evening, and sadly it comes two and a half hours into the show.
Feingold also says: "The surrounding cast is never actively painful; they just constantly seem to be working under par." I have to disagree with him there, too -- Ramona Mallory, playing Anne, is indeed actively painful. He says she "shows promise," which I suppose is true, but the fact that she might be good in something else doesn't alter the fact that she's dreadful in this role. She's hammy. She's whiny. She overplays every line, and in the wrong direction. I've always been enchanted by the sweetly comical "Soon." But not the way Mallory plays it. In fact, she's so off-target I'm pretty sure most of the audience didn't get the whole "still a virgin" thing until Fredrik spelled it out to Desiree half an hour later. It feels as though she based her entire interpretation of Anne on the wrong lines and lyrics -- certainly not "You have to admit I'm endearing." You tire of this Anne right away.
As for Angela Lansbury: she was fine, but not much more than that, at least not from where I sat, high in the rafters. Her "Liasons" was surprisingly lacking in depth -- perhaps because it's hard to act a song you haven't memorized? (She's admitted to using a prompt in other shows; it seems fair to assume she's got one to help her with this notoriously difficult-to-remember song.) Her lines are funny, yes, and she makes them land, but that's not a surprise. By herself she's not a reason to see this show.
My Best Featured Actress nomination goes to Leigh Ann Larkin, entirely for her performance of "The Miller's Son." Her characterization of Petra doesn't work all that well -- largely because, again, there's no tone for her to match, and partly because Ramona Mallory seems to think the virginal Anne should be just as lewd as Petra in their scenes together. But when Larkin is at last onstage alone, she seizes the moment. Her solo number is riveting, polished, and flawless, and I don't care what Ben Brantley says. Those five minutes are so much livelier than the rest of the show that I suspected she went out and got a private coach to help her make the most of it. And while we're praising women (heh), Erin Davie is terrific as Charlotte, or at least would be terrific if Trevor Nunn had done his job. The tension between Wheeler's smart but smarmy dialogue and Sondheim's more sensitive lyrics is particularly unsustainable for Charlotte, and this production is not interested in resolving it. But Davie is wonderful, plus she can sing -- unusual for actresses cast as Charlotte, for some reason -- which would have made "Every Day a Little Death" a thrill, had it not involved more desperate mugging from Ramona Mallory.
Mallory can sing, too -- in fact, everyone can. The score sounds excellent, even with the reduced orchestrations and the hidden-away orchestra (and the aggressive amplification). Still, with very few exceptions -- "The Miller's Son"; certain moments when the Liebeslieder singers were onstage; the final chorus of "A Weekend in the Country" -- hearing the music in this production just made me long to be home listening to the original cast recordings. (The Broadway cast and the London cast. I don't think you can get by with just one.) The good news is, since I saw the show, I've been spending a lot of time getting re-acquainted with my CDs. That's where I recommend you put your money. The show you'll stage in your head is undoubtedly more satisfying than the one Trevor Nunn has sort-of staged on Broadway. It could have been wonderful, but, alas, it isn't.
Update: I went back in November 2010 to see the show with Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch.