July 8, 2008

‘Little Night Music’ Plays on the Affairs of the Heart

By Herman Trotter

ON-THE-LAKE, Ont. -- Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music" is unquestionably a masterpiece. It is unpretentiously sophisticated, teasingly literate, wickedly witty, mesmerizingly melodious, rhythmically lulling and disarmingly frank in its exposition of the open sexual mores of Swedish life in 1900.

Extrapolated in 1973 from Ingmar Bergman's 1955 comic film "Smiles of a Summer Night," it features music largely in lilting waltz time, with rhythms often reflected in the characters' affections that sway or lurch this way and that. The story is fraught with complex relationships, but it centers on three mismatched couples and how they eventually get it right.

Middle-aged lawyer Fredrik has been married for 11 frustrating months to Anne, who is 18 and still a virgin. At the theater, he sees the famed actress Desiree Armfeldt, a former lover, fanning the old smoldering embers. Desiree, however, is now the mistress of Carl- Magnus, a pompous, rancorous, military buffoon whose long-suffering wife, Charlotte, is desperate to regain his fidelity. And Fredrik's son Henrik, an uptight divinity student, is awash in unchanneled testosterone, secretly in love with his stepmother, Anne, while being coached in affairs of the heart by the maid Petra.

All this plays out during one of Sweden's long summer nights when the sun never sets, on the country estate of Desiree's mother, Madame Armfeldt, a grande dame who had been the mistress of kings and counts, accumulating great wealth in the process.

Sondheim's lyrics are an absolute delight, but they need perfect diction without loss of pliant phrasing, which is difficult in light of the "patter-song" pace that propels many of the songs. George Masswohl as Fredrik is masterfully on top of this art, as demonstrated early in "Now," a deliberation on how to approach his virginal wife. The male voices fared well in this department, with Thom Allison as Carl-Magnus especially clean in articulation and Justin Stadnyk as Henrik keeping his message clear even while expressing overwhelming angst.

Donna Belleville as Madame Armfeldt is a continual superb source of levity and wry humor, while Petra is played by Julie Martell with saucy confidence. Goldie Semple is one of Shaw's sure-fire star attractions and, from the dramatic standpoint, she controls every nuance in the role of Desiree. There's a line in the musical's most famous number, "Send in the Clowns," in which she refers to "losing my timing this late in my career." Ironically, Semple's timing and voice support in singing fall short of her superb artistry in spoken lines.

Patty Jamieson is excellent as the abused but far from defenseless Charlotte. Robin Evan Willis believably develops Anne's character from near frigid to fully emancipated, but as Desiree's adolescent daughter Fredrika, Michala Bekken seems a bit intimidated by the role.

Direction by Morris Panych makes marvelous use of the small stage area, aided immeasurably by the deft continual relocation of set designer Ken MacDonald's dozen caster-mounted, slender northern trees and by Valerie Moore's superb choreography that serves its purpose without calling attention to itself. Music director Paul Sportelli has pared Jonathan Tunick's truly magnificent orchestration down to two woodwinds, two strings and piano with an effectiveness I would not have believed possible. Despite the few reservations expressed about this production, it overrides the Court House Theatre's limitations and offers a fine view of this superb musical.


"A Little Night Music"

3 1/2 stars (out of four)

Musical playing through Oct. 4 as part of Shaw Festival in Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

For more information, call (800) 511-7429 or visit www.shawfest.com.

Originally published by NEWS CRITIC EMERITUS.

(c) 2008 Buffalo News. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.