- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 13, 2015

NEW YORK (AP) - Her dark hair pulled back and eyes glassy as nostalgia filled her thoughts, Catherine Malfitano waded into “Liaisons,” Madame Armfeldt’s elegiac rumination on her remunerative romances from “A Little Night Music.”

Having portrayed Tosca, Violetta, Salome, Lulu and other histrionic heroines during more three decades as a soprano, at age 67 she was taking on Stephen Sondheim’s grande dame, the tart-tongued family head who presides over a Swedish country estate with an aristocratic condescension.

Now on the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music, Malfitano joined a student cast for a three-performance run of the American Musical Theater Ensemble that started Tuesday night in sweltering Borden Auditorium.

Hermione Gingold created the role in the original 1973 Broadway production, which she repeated in a 1977 film. It was sung with dripping sarcasm by mezzo-soprano Regina Resnik in a 1990 staging at New York City Opera that was televised by PBS and then performed by Angela Lansbury and Elaine Stritch in a Broadway revival from 2009-11.

Banging and pointing with her walking stick, rising from her chair in a dark and elegant costume, Malfitano commanded the stage. She didn’t quite muster Resnik’s level of disdain or Lansbury’s ennui, but she created a Madame all her own, with a tinge of Joan Crawford fierceness. Her words shocked when she implored her granddaughter Fredrika, played with spunkiness by Julia Soriano, to “never marry - or even dally with - a Scandinavian. … They are all insane. … It’s the latitude.” She even overcame an amplification system that cut out at key moments.

Agness Nyama (Desiree Armfeldt) and Clayton Brown (Fredrik Egerman) sang the central middle-aged couple who see each other for the first time in more than a decade and reunite, he the lawyer who married an 18-year-old woman and she the actress consumed by dalliances. Having students in these roles was a bit jarring - in makeup and costume they appeared to be in their 30s, lacking the jadedness needed to set off the events that realign couples.

Despite that, all the students had standout voices. Nyama navigated the most famous song, “Send in the Clowns,” with a gleaming voice and assured tone, a far different interpretation than the breathy pathos of Glynis Johns in Harold Prince’s original staging and Judi Dench’s crushing self-examination in the 1995 production at London’s Royal National Theatre.

Luke Sikora (Henrik Egerman) provided comic energy as the stepson who doesn’t seem to really want to be a priest and runs off with his virginal stepmother, Samantha Williams (Anne Egerman). Nickolas Miller was the haughty Carl-Magnus Malcolm, who is insulted when his affair with Desiree is interrupted by Fredrik’s affair with Desiree, and Addie Hamilton was his angered and conflicted wife, Charlotte.

Sondheim’s lilting tribute to 3/4 time, with his intricate wordplay and Hugh Wheeler’s sophisticated book, remains fresh more than four decades later.

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