A Little Night Music, book by Hugh Wheeler, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, based on a film, "Smiles of a Summer Night" by Ingmar Bergman. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
A Little Night Music company; photo: Reid Thompson
"I literally laugh myself to sleep contemplating my future!"
Kate Baldwin and Phillipa Soo; photo: Emily Faulkner
"There is money to be made dancing in America," Julie Andrews says in the first Julie and Carol Burnett TV special. The statement is definitely proven this summer in Pittsfield, with fabulous sensual dancing upstreet where "Kiss Me, Kate" is playing. That show has now been joined by "A Little Night Music" at the Colonial on South Street. In this new production presented by Berkshire Theare Group the dance and movement is lyrical, romantic, almost constant and in one variation or another of three-quarter time. Stephen Sondheim's brilliant score for this show creates a vision in waltztime and its variations. Berkshire Theatre Group's presentation of the show literally hangs on that rhythm from one end of the play to another.
A star-studded cast loses itself, person by person, into the intriguing web of romantic chaos that takes place in Hugh Wheeler's clever book. Frederik Egerman, married for eleven months to a young woman whose virginal grasp on the world is undergoing no changes, revisits an old flame, a stage star named Desiree Armfeldt. Her lover, the very married Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, jealous of this previous relationship, uses his unfortunate wife Charlotte to plot against the Egerman onslaught and everyone, including a lusty maidservant, goes to the country for a weekend. The simplicity of all this is altered by a quintet of singers dressed for a ballet edition of A Midsummer Night's Dream who chant the light, sing the emotional changes and harmonize the romantic moments. This melange is miraculous.
The Egerman Three are played by Gregg Edelman (Frederick), Phillipa Soo (wife, Anne) and Matt Dengler (son, Henrik). Dengler and Soo are the odd couple in this show, he in love but unable to admit it and she finding him too funny for words while denying her actual feelings for him. Soo is sometimes difficult to take, her high-pitched laughter as annoying to the audience as it is to Henrik. She has a difficult role and she plays it to the hilt, stopping just shy of angry foot-stomps. She has no subtlety and the role seemingly calls for none, so it must be regarded as a role well played. Dengler, on the other hand, has colors galore within his character's emotional states. Handsome, with a very nice voice and an aptitude for the cello, he makes an engaging young Lothario even when his attacks on the maid are a bit over-the-top. Gregg Edelman brings an odd sentimentality into Frederik that left the character open to all sorts of suppositions. The actor has loads of charm which he exhibits in the softest and sweetest ways. He is never brittle or bright and he never takes the stage away from any other player. This leading man is a very gracious player and we remember him because of this.
We cherish the women, generally speaking, in this show. Even when they simply walk there is a sense of dance about them. This goes for all of them, including Penny Fuller who plays most of the play in a wheelchair. As Desiree Armfeldt's mother Fuller casts spells on the other characters and on the audience as well with her stories of former lovers and her understanding of the night sky in Scandinavia where the sun won't set and night smiles three times. Fuller is a joy to behold and to hear; she's as enjoyable as Hermione Gingold who originated the role.
Kate Baldwin wrings every jibe and jab out of Countess Charlotte Malcolm while singing her songs with a strong musicality and a heart-clutching reality. Monique Barbee as the maid, Petra, nearly stops the show with her second act solo "The Miller's Son." Emma Foley as Desiree's daughter is a wonderful actress, bringing a freshness to the role that was unanticipated and very sweet.
For the very first time in my fifty years reviewing theater I put down my pen and applauded a singer and a song. Maureen O'Flynn as Desiree accomplishes something in this show that I have never seen and heard her do before: she delivers an emotionally moving performance, betraying a warmth that I have never found in her before. She has always been a reliable singing actress, but never one I'd praise for her expressiveness or her openly gratifying performances. In the past it has seemed that she was about the voice only, a rather cold and clinical approach to character. In this show, however, she takes all of the best of her past work and adds to it this new, soul-gathering artistry and when she reached the emotionally revealing "Send in the Clowns" she simply tore away all masks, all of the past, and exposed herself, in character, to a remarkable possible future. I must say that from today I am a fan and I imagine anyone seeing the show, discovering her for the first time, must feel the same way about her.
Director Ethan Heard has done a wonderful job of putting Sondheim's finest and most musically intriguing work on the stage. His assembled team have given him some help and a few hindrances, however. Scenic Designer Reid Thompson has left a lot to the imagination of the audience. His set pieces, beds, chairs, and so on are fine, but they exist in the pre-cartoon vacuum of poorly painted backdrops that provide patterns but no style. David Murin's costumes are just fine, although some of the color choices were remarkably dull considering the characters who wear them. The lighting designed by Oliver Wason was fine, although in the world of eternal twilight, some of the exterior lighting was a bit too dark. The audio-mix engineer, Darren O'Brien still needs to find a proper balance between the excellent orchestra and the equally excellent singers who sometimes could not be heard over the band.
The quintet of singers who form the chorus were well-chosen for both voice and bodies as they waltz and sing, and waltz and sing and so on and so on and soforth. They are: Ashton Heyl, Denis Lambert, Jamilyn Manning-White, Patricia Noonan and Eric Van Tielen.
Much of the credit for the charm of this show goes to choreographer Alex Sanchez who has kept this entire company (not Miss Fuller) on their feet, on their toes and sometimes doing it backwards and in heels. Half of the satisfaction in this musical comes from the movement and under Sanchez' dance direction that satisfaction is guaranteed.
"A Little Night Music" is a special event on so many levels. It is a show you shouldn't avoid if you don't like musicals. This is a mind-changing evening.
Penny Fuller and Emma Foley; photo: Christina Riley
"A Little Night Music" plays at the Colonial Theater, 111 South Street in Pittsfield, MA through July 19. For information or tickets call the box office at 413-997-4444 or go to their website at www.BerkshireTheatreGroup.org.