Thursday, June 4, 2015

"A Little Night Music"

A Little Night Music
Stephen Sondheim (Music & Lyrics); Hugh Wheeler (Book)

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” not only applies to Dickens’ Paris but unfortunately also describes the American Conservatory Theatre production of the Sondheim and Wheeler modern classic of A Little Night Music.  So much of the evening at A.C.T. soars to great heights, but some cast choices -- specifically those dealing with most of the males – tarnish an otherwise outstanding outing of live theatre.

Riccardo Hernandez’s opening set is stunning with its landscape-size tapestries of rich color and beautiful paintings of forests.  Late nineteenth-century opulence of Swedish upper class is suggested by numerous and elegant chandeliers; and properties are waltzed on and off with beauty and no in-between-scene pause.  Candice Donnelly has designed a fabulous tour of women’s gowns and hats of the period, with each of numerous changes bringing more satiny color, ribbons, puffs, and tucks.  Stephen Sondheim’s beautifully flowing score (orchestrated originally by Jonathan Tunick) with its dozens of waltz sequences is performed without flaw by Wayne Barker and his eight off-stage musicians.  And throughout, couples do waltz and waltz again in ways that are never out of line with the current storyline, thanks both to Val Caniparoli’s choreography and Mark Lamos’ direction.

And who can dispute the intriguing story and peerless songs of this Sondheim/Wheeler gem?  Love comes and goes in all shapes and forms among the characters of every age and class.  There is love at first sight, aborted love, illegitimate and adulterous love, secret trysts and publicly known affairs.  Love strikes upstairs and downstairs among this cast of aristocrats and their servants.  The old remember past loves with nostalgia and some regret; the middle-age try desperately and foolishly to thwart aging and recreate the lust of earlier years; the youth either puzzle their way through first attractions or jump at the immediate chance for sex-drive satisfaction.  A Little Night Music can tell these stories of love sought, lost, and found from several lenses; Mr. Lamos has chosen to emphasize the sexy, erotic chords underlying the waltzing of close-touching bodies and to underline the subtle and not-so-subtle humor of the lyrics and book.  Both choices work very well.

Sticking with the soaring parts of this production (and there are many), the women from oldest to youngest are absolutely magnificent in voice and acting abilities.  Each delivers her moment in the musical spotlight with age and character appropriate clarity and brilliance.  Sondheim’s bullet-fast lyrics and his tricky rhythms and keys are elementary to this group of master performers.

As the wheel-chaired elder Madame Armfeldt, Dana Ivey delivers many of the best comic lines in an authoritative, matter-of-fact voice backed by twinkling eyes and knowing looks as she reminiscences her many past ‘liaisons’ with royalty and as she provides wise (sometimes bawdy) love advice to her eight-year-old granddaughter, Fredrika.  Brigid O’Brien’s Fredrika is wise beyond her years and is often the only ‘adult’ in the room, and she sings with a bright, assured manner that displays optimism of youth and confidence usually seen only in later life.  As the late-teen bride Anne of a much-older widower Fredrik, Laurie Veldheer is appropriately silly and sexy; and she couples with Emily Malcolm to deliver a stunningly sad Every Day a Little Death that speaks to everyone who has ever felt cheated in love.  Ms. Malcolm as the wife of a philandering dragoon Carl-Magnus brings a full range of comic, serious, and even drunken emotions; and every time she appears as her red-haired Charlotte on the stage, notice is taken.  Near the end of the show, Petra (the buxom, saucy maid of Madame Armfeldt’s household played by Marissa McGowan) triumphs as she solos The Miller’s Son,” taking it from its folksy beginning and belting it into a full, only-Sondheim number in Company style.

But most kudos must go to Karen Ziemba as Desiree, the once toast-of-Sweden stage star who now tours the countryside playing Ibsen while also having an affair with Charlotte’s vacuous, overly macho dragoon husband.  Playing a role that has seen the like of Jean Simmons, Judi Dench, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Ms. Ziemba brings to the musical’s most famous number, Send in the Clowns, a show-stopping interpretation all her own that is different from the normal song full of regret and sadness.  Desiree reflects on her present state of life with an air of irony and ‘can-you-believe-this?’ attitude that is jaw-dropping.  To me, that one number was worth the price of the ticket and the several-hour commitment.

So, why ‘it was the worst of times’?  Where are the flaws amongst all the many diamonds recounted above?  Unfortunately, to a man, none brings to Sondheim’s difficult, nuanced songs the ability to sing as required.  From mediocre to actually bad deliveries, the men of this cast (including the two in the Greek-like chorus) too often waver on held notes, go off key, and just over-sing in the wrong places.  When in duet with a female counterpart, the contrast can be painful at times (Desiree and Fredrik in You Must Meet My Wife, for example).  When singing together (It Would Have Been Wonderful by Fredrik and Carl-Magnus), so much potential of the wonderful song is lost due to under-performance musically.  As actors, the performances are adequate but never reach the pinnacles of the women in the cast.  The comic aspects of the toy-like soldier Carl-Magnus and of the love-deprived, sex-hungry student Henrik are too under-played by Paolo Montalban and Justin Scott-Brown to bring out the full potential of these delicious parts.  Perhaps the single-most disappointing moment is the manner Patrick Cassidy as Fredrik introduces Desiree’s Send in the Clowns moment.  His reflection of love regrets comes across as if he were just reading the lines for the first time.  Again, the contrast is stark against what comes next with Ms. Ziemba knocks the ball out of the ballpark with the night’s signature song.

In the end, the evening at A.C.T. is full of dreamy music, beautiful scenes, and a wonderful story.  The miscast male set is not enough to ruin, only to tarnish ever so slightly the well-polished trophy presented by the masterfully cast women.

Rating:  4 E’s

A Little Night Music continues in extended run at the American Conservatory Theatre's Geary stage through June 21, 2015.

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