in: Reviews

September 24, 2015

Night Timing Needs Improvement



The cast of A Little Night Music. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Because I love Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music so much, I jump at the opportunity to see it again. And again. My personal benchmark performance, still vivid in memory a dozen years on, was mounted by the (late, lamented) New York City Opera. When I heard Huntington Theater Company was presenting this work, of course I asked to review it.

Later, Henrik, later. The culturati will know that this run began on September 11th. This review appears later than I would like, since as in New York, the press was not invited to the first week of the run. I saw last Friday’s performance.

Fidelity, like mine to Desirée—and Charlotte, my devoted wife. For me the brilliance of Sondheim’s Night Music is in the enmeshed story and music, coupled with a delightful economy where nothing is extraneous. The story is an homage to Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, where 19th-century Swedish actors and aristocratic (-seeming) demimondaines carry on like Belle Époque Paris—or gilded-age Manhattan and Newport. According to director Peter DuBois, the whole is about “sex and death.” This is true, but only insofar as most things in this life are about sex and death. This view misses out on the wit, the wry commentary, the mordant humor of Sondheim’s lyrics and Hugh Wheeler’s book.

Where’s craft? Replete with liaisons old and new, star-crossed and miscued, this is a tale of permutations of desire not unlike Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, but without the ensorcellment. Here the magic is more that which comes with the lowering of inhibitions, the “simmer dim” of the Scandinavian ‪midnight sun, and the solstitial craziness of casting aside repressions old and new. Pablo Torres, cast as Henrik Egerman, perfectly embodies this repression and release as he journeys from Lawyer Egerman’s theologically-minded son to the earthly young man who elopes with his stepmother, Anne. His early earnestness was acutely uncomfortable to observe, so perfectly did he act the awkward young man. McCaela Donovan as Petra brought an earthy directness to these otherwise civilized proceedings, even as she played up the temptress more than voluptuary. Morgan Kirner, as Anne Egerman, simpers with the best of them. Bobbie Steinbach, seen in many local plays, gives Madame Armfeldt a bawdy cast, with few opportunities for off-color gesture missed. Miles McGowan, as Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm chews up his scenes as the swaggart soldier. With posturing and bravado, muscles and bass register, he commanded attention with his buffoonery. Stephen Bogardus’s Fredrik Egerman is a study in regret, bad decisions made for good reasons, and belated enlightenment. This emotional journey is difficult to capture on stage and he succeeded. Lauren Weintraub’s turn as Fredrika Armfeldt captured the childishness and precocity of this jaded innocent. The real highlights, though, were Haydn Gwynne’s Desirée Armfeldt and Lauren Molina’s Countess Charlotte Malcolm. Gwynne impersonated Desirée with an initial reserve and hauteur that made her seem every bit the prima donna assoluta whom none likes. As the night progressed she became more human, more humane, more lovable as a person and not merely a stage monster. Gwynne displayed range and an uncanny ability to project varieties of charisma. Her rendition of “Send in the Clowns” is a beautiful commentary on the proceedings, a meditation on irony and loss. Molina’s Charlotte perfectly portrays the young woman thwarted in love who turns vicious and bitter, but finds her redemption in admitting her mistakes and voicing her desires—which she achieves in the gloaming of this weekend in the country. Both Gwynne and Molina gave an emotional honesty and depth otherwise far too often lacking.

When things got rather touchy, deeded me a duchy.  Alaine Alldaffer made some truly inspiring casting choices, yielding stellar performances a delight to behold—Gwynne and Molina throughout, and others in some memorable moments. Derek McLane’s minimal yet suggestive scenic design never obtruded; it kept within a tradition of presenting Night Music while making it fresh and new. Robert Morgan’s costuming did the job, although some decisions puzzled me. Daniel Pelzig’s choreography likewise; I thought he could have made more of the dance, “Night Waltz I,” at the country manse in the second act.

It would have been wonderful. Jonathan Mastro served as music director, conductor and keyboardist lead a tight orchestra of 13. He brought out nuance and phrase; Sondheim’s music came commendably to life in the theater.

Haydn Gwynne as Desiree Armfeldt  ( T. Charles Erickson photot)

Haydn Gwynne as Desiree Armfeldt ( T. Charles Erickson photot)

If I must, yes I must. It remains to discuss Peter DuBois’ direction. Sondheim’s score opens with the cast engaging in a vocal warm-up, leading into “Overture and Night Waltz”; sung mostly to “la,” we hear some of the themes of the coming musical. The show opened with a sung medley of the songs before the “la” overture. I don’t know which version this production is using, but this is not in any of the other ones I have seen. The Huntington Theater’s prequel to the overture throws off the entire architecture. Here, there are cast doublings, as when Desirée sees Fredrik seated in the box at the theatre; they freeze in a light while doubles sing the parts. This separation of acting and singing disrupts the tight cohesion of the script and led to a stilted performance. The company numbers had no sense of momentum and lagged, like in Desirée’s regret at losing her timing so late in her career. This Night Music felt as though it, too, had lost its timing. The ribaldry and lewdness implicit in the score, became over-explicit on stage; the work suffered for this loss of subtlety. The secret of Perpetual Anticipation is that for deferral and innuendo there will be reward—here the three smiles of the summer night. For it to work, the action must hold our interest. Postponing one sort of pleasure allows for another, namely the joy of verbal play. Not here: mistiming led to ennui. This is especially regrettable in a show that foregrounds the issue of timing as it peeks behind the curtain of “The Glamorous Life.” What count is this one? I wish I knew.

Let’s hope this was an off night and the show finds it pacing before the run ends and Desirée Armfeldt dashes off to Halsingborg again.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College. He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

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