Huntington's "Night Music": Wiles of a Summer Night

The Cast of "A Little Night Music"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Time to send in those clowns again. Huntington Theatre's first offering of the current season is A Little Night Music”, the 1973 Tony-winning romantic musical comedy in three-quarter time (which had a pre-Broadway tryout in Boston). With exquisite Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and an unusually sophisticated Book by Hugh Wheeler, loosely based on the 1955 Ingmar Bergman film “Smiles of a Summer Night”, set in turn-of-the-nineteenth-century Sweden, this has been almost universally embraced as one of the finest works in musical theater. It boasts Sondheim's most accessible score, his most popular song, (“Send in the Clowns”), and beautiful original orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. It ran for over six hundred performances on Broadway, winning six Tony awards including Best Musical, and has had several successful revivals. It was adapted for the screen in 1977, but the less said about that effort, the better; Sondheim himself described it as a waste of everyone's time. Despite that one misstep, the musical enjoys a deservedly elevated status in the Sondheim canon; with its unrivalled history of producing such memorable musical shows as “Candide”, “She Loves Me” and “Jungle Book” in recent seasons, audience expectations for Huntington's version were understandably high.

Those lofty expectations have been met, and then some. This production, bubbling over like a full flute of gorgeously effervescent vintage champagne, is a corker, from the moment the actress Desiree Armfeldt (Haydn Gwynne) meets her old lover, widowed attorney Fredrik Egerman (Stephen Bogardus) and their former romance reignites. Commenting on their various foibles is Desiree's aged mother Madame Armfeldt (Bobbie Steinbach) whose summer estate is the setting for encounters with Countess Charlotte Malcolm (Lauren Molina), wife of Desiree's current lover Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Mike McGowan), along with Fredrik's teen-aged virginal bride Anne (Morgan Kirner), his hormonally overcharged son, the seminarian and cellist Henrik (Pablo Torres), the frankly lusty maid Petra (McCaela Donovan), Desiree's daughter intriguingly named Fredrika (Lauren Weintraub) and the servant Frid (Sam Simahk). All intermingle and interrelate to the accompaniment of a sort of Greek chorus quintet of observers, sung by Amy Barker, Wendy Bergamini, Aimee Doherty, Andrew O'Shanick, and Nick Sulfaro. There are also the page Bertrand (Patrick Varner) and Desiree's maid Malla (Sarah Oakes Muirhead). Suffice it to say that there are numerous amorous permutations and combinations before the summer night reaches resolution and all of the characters' wiles are exposed.

Great care has obviously been spent in casting the full gamut of roles. Gwynne (remembered for her turn in “Billy Elliot”), while not perhaps the obvious choice to portray the glamorous diva Desiree, makes the role her own in her poignant rendition of the aforementioned “Send in the Clowns”, a song best appreciated in context, when Fredrik apologizes to Desiree and departs, leaving her with the realization of the supreme irony that timing is everything. Bogardus commands the stage throughout, with his complex acting and extraordinary singing. Steinbach (who played the same role in a Lyric Stage version a few seasons ago) remains a local gift that keeps on giving, especially delivering Madame's sardonic “Liaisons” (with perhaps Sondheim's most outrageous rhyming, that of “liaisons” with “raisins”). Molina (an unforgettable Cunegonde in Huntington's “Candide” four years ago) makes the most of her viperish Countess with superb timing. The rest of the cast performs at the same artistically pure level, from the staunch McGowan, to the destined-for-one-another Kirner and Torres, to the glorious singing of the quintet. And then there's Donovan's wonderful Petra, perhaps the wisest character, who has the good sense to celebrate what passes by even as she knows full well she will end up marrying within her lowly station. She's a knockout in her solo rendition of “The Miller's Son” (though Sondheim could've trimmed this one).

The score contains a number of truly inspired numbers, beginning with a sung overture by the quintet (a concept subsequently borrowed by “City of Angels”), then ranging from the complex trio of “Now/Later/Soon” to the humorous “The Glamorous Life” and “You Must Meet My Wife” and “Every Day a Little Death”. Along the way we are treated to themes and variations, Sondheim's favorite musical form, with echoes of Rachmaninoff and Ravel. In the music as well as the book, three is a crucial number in songs with triple meter, and in various dramatic triads. (One being the melding of farce, when at first characters fall in love, or at least lust, with the wrong partners; tragedy as in Henrik's attempts at suicide and an abortive game of Russian roulette; and finally romantic comedy when all the other couples take flight leaving Desiree alone at last with Fredrik). But this is a topic for more experienced musicologists. Sondheim has lamented that musicals are too often “reviewed by illiterates with no musical knowledge”, and who are we mere mortals to object? (One might note, however, that it's entirely possible to appreciate a fine dinner without having to grasp the complexity of its ingredients or the intricacies of its preparation). As meticulously directed here by Company Artistic Director Peter DuBois, and Choreographed by Daniel Pelzig, with Musical Direction by Jonathan Mastro, this production is a feast for the ears and eyes. The technical efforts are all stunning, from the Scenic Design by Derek McLane (cleverly utilizing stage trunks to facilitate scene changes), to the lovely Costume Design by Robert Morgan, and the intricate Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter and the fine Sound Design by Jon Weston.

By the end of this sultry summer evening, the night has smiled thrice: first for the young, who lack knowledge, then for the fools, and finally for the old. As DuBois notes, we're left with “a grace note of regret, that something's missing, something's lost”. There have been sex and death, desire and regret, and the ultimate triplet when head, heart and groin join, in love. And there has been musical drama of the highest order. It's a smashing start for the company's season.

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