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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
A Little Night Music
By Elyse Sommer
When you think of a musical in waltz time, Stephen Sondheim isn't likely to be the first name to pop into your mind. But this genius composer-lyricist (and I don't use that genius adjective lightly) is indeed the man who adapted Ingmar Bergman's 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night into a waltz-tempo driven show renamed for Mozart's serenade "Eine kleine Nachtmusik" and with a distinct kinship to A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Sondheim's typically ironic voice added a bittersweet flavor to librettist Hugh Wheeler's romantic fairy tale. Though some critics deemed Wheeler's book and Sondheim's penchant for darkness as incompatible, A Little Night Music's 1973 premiere Broadway production ran for more than 600 performances. And since then, this sophisticated tale of an interlinked series of romantic entanglements has crossed genre boundaries with productions in opera houses as well as theaters. The complex characters and rich music have attracted stellar actor-singers to interpret and bring out the lyrical complexities of the breakout hit "Send In the Clowns," as well as other ear clingers like ", " "A Weekend in the Country" and "The Miller's Son." The most recent star-driven Broadway revivals featured Catherine Zeta-Jones and Bernadette Peters as Desiree Armfeldt and Angela Lansbury and Elaine Stritch as the wheelchair bound Madame Armfeldt. ( Review).
Even without a high profile cast, this highly intellectual yet wonderfully accessible musical can enchant Sondheim's many fans, and seed new Sondheimians — one example right here in the Berkshires: Barrington Stage's terrific production back in 1998 ( Curtainup review). Clearly its time to give Berkshirites a chance to have another look and listen at this lovely but all too rarely revived show. So thank you to Berkshire Theater Group for doing that, even if its production isn't flawless. (probably honors for the most perfectly cast and beautifully stages version ever reviewed at Curtainup belongs to the 2004 production at the Los Angeles Opera House ( Review ).
As Hugh Wheeler's book insured that the various couples overcame their repressed feelings and regrets to wind up properly paired for a final hopeful waltz, so the current production has enough assets to make it well worth seeing. Nathan Darne's 11-member pit orchestra and the voices of the entire cast do full justice to the sublime score which is the pulsating heart of this show.
While Maureen O'Flynn' isn't the most nuanced Desiree I've ever seen, her voice is gorgeous and she does deliver the goods with the show stopping "Send in the Clowns." No reservations about Greg Edelman. He gives a fully rounded performance as Frederik, Desiree's emotionally shut-down former lover who's now in a frustratingly unconsummated marriage to Anne (Phillipa Soo, the stunning Natasha of the immersive hit show Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 ) who inevitably succumbs to her stepson Henrik's (Matt Dengler) love for her.
Penny Fuller arms Madame Armfeldt with the wit and wary wisdom of a once glamorous courtesan, especially during her stunning solo, "Liaisons," during which she regrets the passing of a more tasteful era, (". . .In a world where the princes are lawyers,/ What can anyone expect Except to recollect. . "). Two of the most delightful characters are Desiree's pompous, adulterous Count Carl-Agnus Malcolm and his often betrayed Countess. They're delightfully played by real life marrieds Kate Baldwin and Graham Rowat. His solo "In Prase of Women" and her poignant "Every Day a Little Death" are highlights.
In the penultimate solo number, "The Miller's Son," Petra (Monique Barbee) declares herself ready to find a waltzing partner other than young Henrik, thus leaving everyone neatly paired.
Though the Grecian costumes and props seem unnecessary to clarify the function of the quintet of singers (Ashton Heyl, Denis Lambert, Jamilyn Manning-White, Patricia Noonan and Eric Van Tielen) their singing is dazzling. That brings me to the downside of this production, which is a lack of style which even Sondheim's elegant music needs. This is attributable mostly to Ethan Heard's often clunky direction and the budgetary axe that seems to have been applied to the scenery (happily, definitely not David Murin's costumes!).
Putting Frederik and Anne into one of the Colonial's boxes for the scene at which they attend a performance by Desiree is a nice directorial touch. Heard is also apparently a good listener and paid attention to some early audience complaints about staging the second act's banquet scene with the characters seated with their backs to the audience. However, while this was an easy last-minute fix to make, there's no fixing of the second act's tacky cardboard scenery for Madame Armfeldt's estate. Granted, the show's last Broadway revival, also came in for its share of negative comments about its quite modest scenery. However, Reid Thompson's scenery is so unattractive that it's downright distracting. Also, by having so many scenes play out in front of the curtain puts undue emphasis on the scenery's shortcomings.
Still with so many richly musical and sophisticated songs, articulated with humor and poignancy as needed, this A Little Night Music is more than a little enjoyable.