“Why an Emmanuel Music A Little Night Music?” asks artistic director Ryan Turner in the program to this weekend’s performances of the Stephen Sondheim musical. But really this is only a surface level surprise—a matter of category that Emmanuel would present musical theater in addition to its usual Bach cantatas—it all makes perfect sense once you see the show. The need for justification has been greatly exaggerated.
On Saturday night the group presented the first of two sold-out performances at the Boston Conservatory Theater with a cast of Boston’s finest singers joined by a few newcomers. On stage Turner led a 25-piece orchestra and the drama unfolded with the singers on a scattering of platforms. The semi-staged production was directed by Lynn Torgove, who also played the character of Désirée Armfeldt. Thanks to the evocative lighting, snappy costumes, and logical blocking, everything the show needed to convey itself was provided. I was not left wishing for grander sets or more elaborate action.
Hugh Wheeler’s book (inspired by the Ingmar Bergman Film “Smiles of a Summer Night”) and Sondheim’s lyrics and score are smart and work together to etch sharp characters in dramatical interaction. The plot concerns two Swedish clans—the Armfeldts and the Egermans—united in a web of infidelities by the Count Carl-Magnus and his wife Charlotte. Marriage vows don’t mean much here. Everyone gets around.
But Emmanuel’s production was uncynical and non-moralistic; it never felt tawdry. The characters were treated with understanding, even sympathy, and nobody came across as wholly unlikeable. The director and cast allowed the drama to unfold on its own terms as if to simply say, hey, this is how it goes.
The first act introduces the women of the Armfeldt family: Désirée, an actress; Fredrika, her young daughter; and Madame Armfeldt, the matriarch. We also meet the members of the Egerman clan: Fredrik, a lawyer; Anne, his dimwitted virgin wife; and Hendrik, his son from a previous marriage. The first three songs from the Egermans (“Now,” “Later,” “Soon”) were nicely delivered by baritone David Kravitz, soprano Kristen Watson, and tenor Jonas Budris. Bobbie Steinbach, a theater veteran, also stood out with her raspy delivery of the elderly Armfeldt’s song “Liaisons.” But the best numbers were the duets: Kravitz and Torgove’s “You Must Meet My Wife,” in which old flames reunite, and “Every Day a Little Death,” sung by Watson and Krista River, who played the Countess Charlotte.
The second act features the musical’s hit ballad, “Send in the Clowns,” which Torgove sang with rueful self-reflection. While the show’s ensemble cast was excellent across the board, Torgove deserves special praise for both her musical and directorial work as well as for her fine stage acting, some of the best seen in this production. Her Désiree was a dignified, savvy woman —perhaps not quite the “fool” Sondheim had in mind—but it worked. She had good chemistry with Kravitz and with baritone Dana Whiteside, whose appropriately rigid take on the Count served well as a bottled up third wheel.
Later in Act II, the orchestra had a chance to show off eerie timbres in the “Dinner Table Scene,” worthy instrumental music in its own right. We also heard Kellie McKay, a sophomore at Boston Conservatory, sing “The Miller’s Son,” an intricate number that mixes folk tune with patter song. Her bright and energetic voice was a good fit for the role of Petra, the Egermans’ servant. She was joined in the production by another BoCo undergraduate, Grayson Mills, in the mostly spoken role of the young Fredrika whose innocent questioning frames the plot.
Throughout the show, a Greek chorus, the Liebeslieder Quintet, weaves in and out with comments and echoes of the action. Here the quintet was stocked with Emmanuel regulars as distinguished as those in the main cast: baritone Sumner Thompson, tenor Matthew Anderson, sopranos Sonja Tengblad and Jayne West, and mezzo-soprano Majie Zeller.
So why an Emmanuel Music A Little Night Music? Well, why not? But if anyone wants some connection drawn back to Emmanuel’s main repertoire, I’ll posit this: Sondheim is an artist who really managed to get his technical chops to work in service of his keen emotional and dramatic intuitions, and his work has a calculated expressivity that still rings true. Isn’t that similar to what Bach achieved in his weekly cantatas?