Theatre Mirror Reviews - "A Little Night Music"

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note: entire contents copyright 2004 by Carl A. Rossi


"A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC"

music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
book by Hugh Wheeler
suggested by a film by Ingmar Bergman
originally produced and directed on Broadway by Harold Prince

directed by Spiro Veloudos
choreography by Ilyse Robbins
musical direction by Jonathan Goldberg

Mr. Lindquist … Frank Aronson
Mrs. Nordstrom … Kaja K. Schuppert
Mrs. Anderssen … Vanessa Schukis
Mr. Erlandson … Stephen Marc Beaudoin
Mrs. Segstrom … Kristen Sergeant
Fredrika Armfeldt … Andrea C. Ross
Madame Armfeldt … Bobbie Steinbach
Frid … Will Keary
Henrik Egerman … Billy Piscopo
Anne Egerman … Lianne Grasso
Fredrik Egerman … Christopher Chew
Petra … Elizabeth Hayes
Desiree Armfeldt … Maryann Zschau
Malla … Susan Gross
Bertrand … Harley Yanoff
Count Carl-Magnus … Drew Poling
Countess Charlotte Malcolm … Leigh Barrett
Osa … Celeste Beck

Orchestra:

Conductor; Keyboards … Jonathan Goldberg
Violin … Stanley Silverman
Cello … Catherine Stephan
Reeds … Louis Toth; Ray Taranto
Horn … Ami Fields
Trumpet; Horn; Flugelhorn; Percussion … Paul Perfetti

Considering that infidelity makes up much of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, Stephen Sondheim’s award-winning musical is rather faithful to its source: Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT, set in Sweden in the early 1900s. Fredrik Egerman, an aging lawyer, is married to Anne, his much younger, still-virginal bride who, in turn, is enamored by Fredrik’s grown son Henrik from a previous marriage. Finding himself playing a father figure rather than a husband, Fredrik is drawn back to the arms of his ex-mistress Desiree Armfeldt, a stage actress who is currently the jealously-guarded property of Count Carl-Magnus, a pompous dragoon married to the long-suffering Charlotte who loves-hates her husband yet aides and abets him in his not-so-clandestine affairs; Petra, the Egermans’ lusty maid starts out as Henrik’s would-be teacher of Love and Life and ends up in the hay with Frid, a butler. Commenting on the numerous pairings-off are the very old (Madame Armfeldt, Desiree’s mother and a former mistress of kings, herself) and the very young (Fredrika, Desiree’s --- and possibly, Fredrik’s --- clear-eyed, wondering daughter); a quintet of two men and three women in evening dress wander throughout as a sort of chamber Chorus. Where the two works differ is in tone: Mr. Bergman’s film is an Indian summer comedy filtered through an ironic worldliness; there is a coolness to Mr. Sondheim’s musical that tickles the intellect but, aside from its signature tune “Send in the Clowns”, leaves the heart untouched. This coolness lies not so much in Hugh Wheeler’s libretto which applies a Broadway gloss to the screenplay but rather in Mr. Sondheim’s restless, complex score which is often out of sync with the storyline’s winking at human nature (even Mr. Sondheim’s most fervent admirers must admit that, in context, his songs tend to shift things into another gear altogether rather than walking, hand in hand, with their librettos --- I’ll wager a bet that his artistry is best known on its own terms (i.e. in concerts or in recordings) where his self-contained compositions all too easily stand on their own).

The Lyric Stage’s production is not only superb in and of itself, it is also a lovely showcase for much of the best musical talents in the Boston area; if you want to see Beantown at its best, this season, this is the place to start. The evening may be cool but director Spiro Veloudos and the majority of his company are warm and familiar company, by now, with Mr. Veloudos relaxed and genial at the reins, choreographer Ilyse Robbins managing to squeeze a few waltzes out of the score, and their seasoned players bonding as a repertory company --- and what riches there are, even in the minor roles which include the always-welcome Kaja Schuppert, silvery in her trills, and Vanessa J. Schukis, a booming dowager lacking a Groucho, as members of the quintet, and Susan Gross, one of the POPCORN killers from this past summer, as a mute servant but still packing a pistol in her glances.

Billy Piscopo brings an endearing, rained-upon quality to Henrik; despite his youth and slight frame, Mr. Piscopo’s voice is astonishingly powerful, coupled with a lieder-like sensitivity that makes his anguished solo “Now” worthy of inclusion in a Mahler recital. Mr. Piscopo’s woebegone-ness allows Lianne Grasso, all pink sugar and cream, to bring out Anne’s maternal instincts sooner than later which in turn makes this flighty child-woman sympathetic from the start; Ms. Grasso may stand closer to noon than to dawn in playing an eighteen-year-old but her body language correctly reads “Do Not Enter”. Whereas Andrea C. Ross tolled solemnly in Stoneham’s LIZZIE BORDEN, her Fredrika rings out in merry tintinnabulation; Ms. Ross, young enchanter that she is, is bound to go places --- ideally, to center stage. I fear I must continue to describe Elizabeth Hayes’ performances as “spunky” as long as she continues her current casting streak: her Petra is, well, spunky; so much so that Ms. Hayes grins like a Venus flytrap --- so give her Calamity Jane, already, then let her move on to other temperaments (remember how she smoldered last year in MOLLY’S DREAM?). Everything Bobbi Steinbach does on a stage becomes a Must-See and she has never looked more handsome as she does now as Madame Armfeldt but needs to take on a few flawed or vulnerable roles to balance her current run of crusty or authoritative matriarchs. Ms. Steinbach is such an honest artist that her performances reflect the degree of her involvement: at her inspired best, she is unforgettable (her war-adapted mother in A GIRL’S WAR was a personal triumph), here, as in MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, she is marking time: take away Madame Armfeldt’s solo “Liaisons” which could have been dispensed with in a few lines of dialogue and Ms. Steinbach has little to do but be wheeled about the stage, dropping pearls of senior wisdom (that’s the trouble with wheel-chair characters: with each entrance, I always think, “Here he/she comes, again….”). If Ms. Steinbach must continue in this vein, then submerge her in the classics; her monumental diminutiveness cries out for declamation and I’m heartened to know she will be stepping into some Shakespeare before the season is out. Ms. Steinbach is known for her comedic skills --- I still grin over her ditzy Julia in the Lyric’s LEND ME A TENOR --- but I sense that she is a tragedienne at heart; what a Hecuba she would make, grieving over Troy’s ashes and her murdered grandchild, her granite resolution cracking but not crumbling (I’ll ask for the moon as well as the stars and demand to see her as Winnie, gradually returning to the earth, in Beckett’s HAPPY DAYS).

Thrice I have now seen Drew Poling and Leigh Barrett perform together; theirs is an interesting duo: a big sweetie (he) and a tough cookie (she). Mr. Poling continues to push the adorable button more often than he should but balances the role of Carl Magnus with engaging self-mockery (the eyebrow exercises are priceless). His jealous Count may be no more threatening than a toy lion --- Cowardly Lion, really; I kept expecting him to brandish his fists at Fredrik, intoning “Put ‘em up. Put ‘em uuuuuuuuup” --- but his characterization is in keeping with the production’s mellowness and, as always, he sings beautifully. I’m concerned with Ms. Barrett’s artistic health, however: she is in reliable good voice as Charlotte but has hardened as a performer; there always seems to be a scream just under her skin, these days --- if this is what singing too much of Mr. Sondheim’s repertory does to a singer, a healthy dose of Sammy Cahn or Burt Bacharach should do the trick. (I grinned at the unintentional humor in Charlotte singing about the daily “little deaths” that her husband causes her; since “little death” is an outdated term for an orgasm, the satyr in me couldn’t see what all the complaining was about.)

I first encountered Christopher Chew, two seasons ago, as Burr in SpeakEasy’s THE WILD PARTY where he was wild-eyed and dangerous, a rare Hyde to successive Jekyll portrayals; the madman in him needs to be released, more often, for his Fredrik is bland and inhibited --- a sitcom dad who doesn’t know what’s going on in his own family (his current mustache and goatee render him Fagin-like --- another madman role --- Hey! Mr. Producer!). Mr. Chew does score two triumphs: his reticence is the branch to Mr. Piscopo’s apple (both men are like the boy in Mr. Bergman’s PERSONA, gazing up at the mystery of Woman) and, like Mr. Piscopo with Ms. Grasso, Mr. Chew brings out the maternal qualities in his own leading lady with splendid results. For the first time in my scribbling about her, I cannot type the word “brassy” in the same sentence with Maryanne Zschau’s name for her Desiree is her richest, subtlest characterization yet. Thanks to Mr. Sondheim, she does not start out promisingly in her entrance song, the rat-a-tat “Glamorous Life”, which has her looking and sounding like Bette Davis in THE LITTLE FOXES but once Desiree is in her dressing room, alone with Fredrik, Ms. Zschau begins to soften, shade and inflect, bringing out Desiree’s worldliness and warmth along with a gentle, mocking grace (she’s a pal as well as a mistress): whereas Ms. Zschau diluted her natural exuberance as Shelby in THE SPITFIRE GRILL, her Desiree is finely poised between power and acquiescence: here is a woman who has gotten to where she is by playing up to (and on) men’s opinions and fantasies of her yet has retained her love of men and her relish for life --- if the actress (both of them, really) comes off as a dreadnaught, at least she is a dreadnaught in peacetime. Indeed, I found myself so enjoying what Ms. Zschau could do with a tilt of her head or when confronting a rival with poker-faced aplomb that had her Big Tune been cut for running time’s sake, I don’t believe I would have minded. Rest assured, “Send in the Clowns” does happen and Ms. Zschau is so well-layered by then, character-wise, that she need do no more than sing it in near-conversational fashion (it’s the only quiet Sondheim moment in the show), ending the song’s reprise in a hushed sadness --- if the evening was already hers, this moment ties with a bow and sets it in her lap. Bravo!

David C. Cabral has designed the simple, colorful costumes (kept simple, no doubt, because of the women’s numerous changes, off-stage) and if Cristina Todesco’s beige coverings for Act One’s panels transforms Sweden into a wrinkled Stonehenge, they are removed during intermission to reveal painted forestry which, combined with Karen Perlow’s dappled lighting, is most evocative --- even more so when the panels hit their marks on cue rather than occasionally slipping onstage like a tardy Birnam Wood.

HELP SAVE BOSTON’S HISTORIC GAIETY THEATRE!

"A Little Night Music" (10 September - 16 October)
LYRIC STAGE COMPANY
140 Clarendon Street, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 437-7172

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