A Little Night Music

Book by Hugh Wheeler
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Spiro Veloudos
Musical direction by Jonathan Goldberg
THE PUBLICK THEATRE, Boston-- through Sept 6th

 Reviewed by G.L. Horton

Director Spiro Veloudos has picked a musical of private life for the final show of his Publick Theatre's summer season, the elegant, intimate "A Little Night Music''.  Stephen Sondheim turned Ingmar Bergman's bittersweet exploration of early twentieth century upper class adultery in Sweden, ``Smiles of a Summer Night,'' into a musical comedy that waltzes past the lace paper valentines of operetta on its way to a sophisticated, satisfying resolution.  Hugh Wheeler's book is cleverly contrived, an equal mix of high and low comedy;  Sondheim's lyrics beyond clever, ranking among the best ever penned.  The composer has set his own verbal gems in a 3/4 time score that,  like his lyrics,  is challenging to the intelligence as well as ravishing to the ear.  The first and finest accomplishment of Veloudos' Publick cast is that they sing those exquisite lyrics with perfect clarity, and negotiate the score's tricky syncopations and unexpected harmonies with aplomb.  I heard every single rhyme-- and every double and triple rhyme, too.  The Publick has assembled a cast of voices able to cope with the range and complexity of the composer's demands, but certainly much of the praise for its excellence, and that of the orchestra, belongs to the guiding hand of Jonathan Goldberg, whose long term collaboration with Veloudos has resulted in productions of ever increasing musical sensitivity without any loss of verve.

Instead of the explosive energy and enthusiasm that are the usual contribution of a big Publick Theatre chorus, "Night Music" calls for an intimate ensemble of 3 women and 2 men, ably filled by Vanessa Schukis, Alisha Jansky, Penny Rubenfeld, Tim Ostendorf, and John Middleton.   These vocal commentators play members of a sophisticated Swedish set of practiced adulterers whose trysts are as well schooled as their operatic tones.  From the opening "Night Waltz" through the cynical "Remember", where lovers can call to mind the surrounding details of an extramarital encounter but aren't quite sure of the identity of their partner in crime, the ensemble filters the audience's perception of the romantic goings-on of the leading couples through somewhat jaded sensibilities

The goings-on involved circle around Fredrik Egerman (Jon-Daniel Durbin), a widowed lawyer with a 20 year old son, Henrik (Britton White).  Some 14 years before the story begins, Fredrik had an extramarital affair with Desiree Armfeldt, a leading actress of the Scandinavian stage.  After the death of his first wife, Fredrik married Anne (Laura Yosowitz), the teenage orphan daughter of a colleague--  a charming girl who has had a warm and flirtatious relationship with her father's old friend since she was quite little. Young Anne is very happy to be living as the wife of her adored "uncle" Fredrik, but something-- presumably the tinge of incest in the relationship-- makes her shy away from consummating the marriage, and besotted indulgent Fredrik shies away, too: for eleven months.   Things come to a head when Fredrik takes Anne to see Desiree in a touring play, and Anne deduces rapidly that her husband and the actress have been lovers.  Anne dashes out, followed by Fredrik. When after walking out of Desiree's play Fredrik comes to the actress' dressing room and confesses his marital troubles, Desiree agrees to make love with him for old time's sake.  But her empty headed dragoon of a handsome young lover, Count Carl Magnus Malcolm, shows up unexpectedly, forcing Fredrik and Desiree to begin the first moves in an intricate dance of jealousy, misapprehension, manipulation and deceit.

Robin Allison carries off the  role of Desiree with style, which isn't easy.  Desiree is the weakest link in most productions. The character is described as a great actress and a celebrated beauty.  We see her on stage performing an old fashioned leading lady role in a Restoration comedy which was obviously written for a performer of enormous charisma, but the performer in this instance must spend most of that tiny sample scene noticing that Desiree's ex-lover is in the audience and is sitting next to a pretty young woman who must be his new wife.  Allison's beauty and intelligence, plus the poise developed over years of musical theatre experience, stand her in good stead here. Desiree is also assigned the only song in the show that has crossed over into the pop repertoire: "Send in the Clowns",  a very simple tune positioned as the emotional climax of a musical structure of unusual complexity.  Allison must rescue "Clowns" from whatever generalized emotion other performers' versions have attached to it and make it her own, specific to Desiree's situation and conveying all the stoic pangs of frustrated love through deliberately pedestrian music originally written for an actress with a great expressive range but a limited vocal one.  The temptation for a singer of Allison's abundant gifts is to rely on her vocal abilities to break our hearts rather than just letting her own heart break and expecting that our hearts will follow.   At the Publick, our hearts followed.

The amazing thing about "Night Music" is that it does appeal to the intelligent heart.  It is a farce with deep characterization-- an miracle one thought available only to God, Shakespeare and Mozart.  Carl Magnus' neglected wife Charlotte, splendidly played by Gretchen Goldsworthy, is a dream of a part, a superior woman madly in love with the gorgeous dolt who abuses her, fighting for her husband's attention and approval yet fully conscious of how much her actions are unworthy.   Carl Magnus is probably the most limited of the characters, but although JH Williston sings well and postures amusingly, his portrayal gives no hint of the qualities that make the dragoon irresistibly attractive to otherwise sensible women. Desiree's illegitimate daughter Fredrika, engagingly performed by Sudbury schoolgirl Ashley Yarnall, is wise beyond her years, but miraculously uncorrupted. Fredrika's undiscovered half brother, Fredrik's son Henrik, is an impossibly idealistic fool, but his impetuous passion for his virginal stepmother will cure him of his Lutheran priggishness if not of the folly which is the human condition.  Petra, the Egerman's lusty maid (Eileen Nugent), is somewhat restricted to stereotype by her lowly position in the romantic plot, but gets to show her scope in the flashy solo "The Miller's Son".  Last, and most miraculous of all, is the role of Madam Armfeldt, Desiree's mother, a fabulously successful courtesan who made a success of her life by regarding sexuality as a competitive game and conspicuous consumption as the way one keeps score.  By any moral standard the utterly selfish Mdm Armfeldt is a monster: but she has an indomitable spirit and the best lines, so she easily wins us over to regarding her with pity and wonder.  Bobbi Steinbach will be even better in this part twenty years from now, when she has reached the appropriate level of age and decrepitude: but she owns it already.   Steinbach's the best Madame Armfeldt I've seen since the redoubtable Hermione Gingold.

 I suppose that I ought to mention as a kind of afterthought that I had reservations about some of the material aspects of the Publick's production.  The costumes were lovely, but I didn't care for the set, which deprived us of the gorgeous natural backdrop of Herter Park without aesthetic compensation. I thought that the lighting dimming to near black between scenes interfered with the psychological effect of Sweden's Midsummer Eve, when the sun never sets but circles the horizon in "Perpetual Anticipation".   Also, I was forced to avert my eyes in embarrassment when the elegantly gowned ensemble doubled as stage hands.  But all this proved trivial, overcome as soon as the cast opened their mouths.