Sunday, February 3, 2019

"A Little Night Music"


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

Amy Bouchard, Jonathan Smucker, Elana Cowen & Chris Uzelac
Swaying and circling, circling and swaying, a quintet sings in a lush blend of harmonies snippets of fuller songs soon to come while also providing us metaphors in movement and in words of the on-again, off-again love affairs and marriages we are about to witness: 
“Unpack the luggage, la-la-la; pack the luggage, la-la-la.”
... Bring up the curtain, la-la-la; bring down the curtain, la-la-la.
... Hi-ho, hi-ho, the glamorous life.” 

Having set the stage and now moving aside to assume their roles of a Greek-like chorus, the Quintet watches with evident interest and also all-knowing looks as beautifully bedecked couples enter, the latter now waltzing also in circles, with partners moving from one coupling to the next.  All are watched intently by a young girl who joins the dancers with eyes sparkling and a huge, fascinated grin.  Waltzes become much like smooth, graceful skating on ice as Lamplighters Music Theatre’s A Little Night Music (Stephen Sondheim, music and lyrics; Hugh Wheeler, book) gloriously, tantalizingly, sensually begins with Swedish skies of early 1900 enveloping the scene, clouds swirling in their own patterns of waltzes.

Director Dennis M. Lickteig’s opening is stunning, leaving an audience licking its lips for more tastes of the scenes, story, and music to come.  The luxurious, multi-leveled scene is framed by a draping canopy of trees on one side and a flowing drapery of sheer, snowy curtain on the other, all dripping with the opulence of the Swedish upper class of the late nineteenth century.  That magnificent sky becomes a palette for ever-changing hues that paint the islands of clouds, just part of a breath-taking lighting design by Brittany Mellerson.  Judith Jackson has designed a fabulous tour of women’s gowns of the period, with each of numerous changes bringing more satiny color, ribbons, puffs, and tucks (not to mention also an array of hats and feathers that sit atop the turrets of wigs designed by Kerry Rider-Kuhn).  Stephen Sondheim’s beautifully flowing score (orchestrated originally by Jonathan Tunick) with its dozens of waltz sequences is performed without flaw and much beauty by Karl Pister and his twenty-member orchestra.  And throughout, couples do waltz and waltz again in ways that are never out of line with the current storyline, thanks both to Jayne Zaban’s clever and contagious choreography and Mr. Lickteig’s inspired, impressive 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 tells these stories of love sought, lost, and found from several lenses.  Mr. Lickteig emphasizes the circular nature of the rotating coupling of the story and reminds us there is a gossipy aspect of this complex love tale as members of the Quintet hover ever-close at hand to eye each other with knowing looks before often coming in to make their own, melodic comments of the goings-on.  (The exceptionally voiced, impishly watching Quintet includes Amy Bouchard, Elana Cowen, Amy Foote, Jonathan Smucker, and Chris Uzelac – each excelling in both solo and combined opportunities.)

The many soaring aspects of this Lamplighters production most certainly include a cast of nineteen who, from oldest to youngest, are absolutely magnificent in voice and acting abilities.  Each delivers singular moments in the musical spotlight with age and character appropriate clarity and brilliance.  In combination with each other -- whether in carefully blended duets, counterpoint quartets, or fully harmonized ensemble pieces -- Sondheim’s bullet-fast lyrics and his tricky rhythms and keys are elementary to this group of master performers.

As the wheel-chaired grande dame Madame Armfeldt, Barbara Heroux delivers many of the show’s best comic lines in an authoritative, but amused-at-life manner.  With faraway-looking eyes that also zero in for pointed looks, she reminiscences her many past ‘liaisons’ with royalty as she provides wise (sometimes bawdy) love advice to her eight-year-old granddaughter, Fredrika.  As she half-sings, half-speaks in a voice etched with a lifetime of exotic (and maybe erotic) adventures, she tells Fredrika of her past lovers while also mixing in a hefty commentary on current practices of love-seeking, which she does not approve. 

Listening intently and understanding much more than she probably should at eight years, Ella Bleu Bradford’s Fredrika is wise beyond her years and is often the only ‘adult’ in the room.  She sings with a bright, assured manner that displays optimism of youth and confidence usually seen only in later life.  Like the ever-present Quintet, she is the only other one who usually has a grasp of just what is happening and who is or wants to sleep with whom.

Josselyn Ryder & Carey Ann Rosko
As the late-teen bride Anne of a much-older widower Fredrik, Josselyn Ryder is appropriately silly and sexy and sings her “Soon” with lyrical vocals full of smile and spirit.  When her life of luxury becomes more complicated as she realizes her recently-wed husband may have eyes for an old fling, Anne couples with her friend, Charlotte (Cary Ann Rosko) to deliver a stunningly sad “Every Day a Little Death” that speaks to everyone who has ever felt cheated in love.  As the wife of a philandering dragoon, Carl-Magnus, Ms. Rosko is arresting as she in a matter-of-fact, almost emotionless manner asserts, “Men are stupid; men are vain; love’s disgusting; love’s insane.”  As the two conclude that “the looks and the lies” “brings a perfect little death,” the loud bravas of the audience prove the number has hit its target, emotionally and musically.

Samuel Faustine & Robert Stafford
The men of whom they sing are themselves an eclectic collection that run a gamut who can only be described in some combination of confused, cheating, and/or clownish in their attempts at love.  As Fredrik, Robert Stafford brings to bear a rich, velvety baritone voice to deftly tackle the rhymed-couplet lyrics of “Now,” as in marvelously sustained notes he describes his frustration in having married a girl (Anne) who once sat on his lap and called him “Uncle” and who -- eleven months after their marriage -- is still a virgin. 

His twenty-year-old son, Henrik, is devoutly loyal to his cello and his Bible until the aspiring priest touches the breasts or lips of a household maid or looks with puppy eyes at his father’s young bride.  When Samuel Faustine sustains heaven-reaching falsetto notes for seemingly forever while singing “Later,” his youthful voice is full of the frustration and angst that Henrik feels in searching for love as he wonders, “How can I wait around for later?”

Robert Stafford & William Giammona
The trio of love-seeking men who each look the wrong direction before making the right, final choice is the heel-clicking, buffoonish dragoon, Carl Magnus, who is making life for his wife Charlotte miserable as he openly burns the candle at both ends.  His rather disgusting view of women (“a functional but ornamental race”) is sung in an appropriately back-throated voice that bellows with resound and crescendos with noteworthy power as William Giammona deliver’s this philanderer’s warped view of women in a song (“In Praise of Women”) – a song that more than once hints broadly of its kinship to Sondheim’s “Pretty Women” from Sweeney Todd.  

Ella Bleu Bradford & Jennifer Ashworth
The focus of both the infidelity of Fredrik and of Carl Magnus is Madame Armfeldt’s daughter and Fredrika’s mother, Desiree.  The once toast-of-Swedish stage now tours the countryside playing Ibsen while also having an affair with Charlotte’s vacuous, overly macho dragoon husband.  She has also managed now to have a dressing room tryst with her ex-lover, now-husband of teen-age, Anne.  Playing a role that has seen the likes of Jean Simmons, Judi Dench, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Jennifer Ashworth is a star among stars in the Lamplighter production, bringing spontaneous-appearing reactions to her own and her lovers’ situations that often are both telling and hilarious.  When the lone clarinet introduces the musical’s most famous number, “Send in the Clowns,” Ms. Ashworth performs a show-stopping interpretation that reverberates a voice full of heart-aching emotion but also life-amassed wisdom.  The later reprise with Fredrik is also a show highlight as the two answer the question “Where are the clowns?” with a confessional but now happily resolved, “They’re finally here.”

One final audience pleaser that cannot go unnoticed is the late number, “The Miller’s Song,” deliciously delivered with much sauciness by Petra (worldly wise and wise-cracking maid of Madame Armfeldt’s household played by Lindsay Stark).  Her bold, brash flirtations and her pointed, wise advice to her unlikely friend, Anne, makes Petra a terrific choice by Sondheim and Wheeler to give their story an upstairs/downstairs flavor. 

Kudos across the board goes to Dennis Lickteig in his initial show direction as Lamplighters’ new Artistic Director as well as to his entire production/technical staff, musicians, and cast.  Not only is the decision to venture beyond the company’s usual fare of Gilbert and Sullivan a welcome one, but the manner that the company brings Sondheim’s music and Wheeler’s story to the stage is stellar, resulting in A Little Night Music that should not be missed over its final two weekends in Walnut Creek and Mountain View.

Rating: 5 E

A Little Night Music continues for two upcoming weekends at the Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek, February 9-10; and at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, February 16-17.  Tickets for all performance and venues are available at http://lamplighters.org.

Photos by Lucas Buxman

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