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Wednesday, November 06, 2013

A Little More Nightmusic

From the Scanner Dept.: Continuing my tour of vintage Metrolands, here’s a review of a Little Night Music that I attended (and wrote about) in 1986.


SOME OF THE CREAKINESS was written into A Little Night Music, the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical based on Ingmar Bergman’s film comedy Smiles of a Summer Night. Some of the creakiness in the production by the Berkshire Theatre Festival must have just crept in. The combined result is a disjointed piece that nevertheless is extremely charming.

At the very start, a quintet of well-dressed men and women vocalizes on stage, launching into vocal fragments of an overture, reminding us of the improbable nature of what’s to follow. There’s a middle-aged lawyer, married not quite a year to a near-child too nervous to share his bed; an old sweetheart of his, an actress, whom he runs into through clumsy design; the officious paramour of that actress, very jealous ... just a few of the character elements in a farce that spends as much time in the birch fields as it does in the bedroom.

BTF artistic director Josephine Abady directed the production, placing it on the stylized sets by David Potts that gave us a mainstage and two wings designed like wing boxes that rotated the actors into view. Scenery, setting items, and rows of trees slid on and off from the wings, too, but all of the mechanical contrivance lacked the smoothness necessary for it to be effective.

The performances, by a collection of top-flight names, were surprisingly uneven, with the best consistency coming from the quintet that served as chorus: Craig Frawley, Lynne Wintersteller, Lauren Lipson, Scott Waara, and Christina Britton.

John McMartin’s Fredrik didn’t crystallize as the frustrated attorney with a devious plan to ease sexual frustration. As his first song, “Now,” points out, he is a schemer whose ability to consider all sides of a conflict also is a handicap. McMartin is no stranger to Sondheim, having originated the role of Ben in Follies, but he seemed too low-key for this part, a problem aggravated by his trouble remembering lyrics and lines.

Barbara Barrie was a wry counterpart as Desiree Armfeldt, the actress whom Fredrik visits for “old times’ sake.” The part was written for a comic actress who needn’t have the greatest voice, and Barrie fit that splendidly. Her comedy had the right touch of restraint and she sold each of her songs (including the celebrated “Send in the Clowns”) wonderfully.

As Fredrik’s virgin wife, Anne, Kim Crosby displayed a convincing naivete and brought an exceptionally nice voice to the role. Some of the funniest scenes were those she played opposite Kelly Bishop, the Countess Charlotte Malcolm, herself the complicated wife of Desiree’s lover, Carl-Magnus.

Hal Davis played the last-named with a stuffy, almost cardboard quality that would have benefitted from a touch of graciousness. His song “In Praise of Women” celebrates the second sex with delightfully maddening superiority.

There were commendable performances by Kay Walbye, as the serving-girl, Petra, who has much more fun with her life than do her employers, and Willy Falk, as the bespectacled theologian and cellist Henrik, Fredrik’s son. (Falk’s song “Later” gave cellist Michael Gasparovic the opportunity to demonstrate a sweet and complementary tone.)

Bookending the piece are the grande dame Madame Armfeldt, sympathetically played by Barbara Baxley, and young Fredrika, given an eager portrayal by Rachel Ann Siegel.

An orchestra of a half-dozen pieces lent the production a turn-of-the-century salon sound, the musical direction, by pianist Uel Wade, needed a better balance with the singers, the weaker-voiced of whom were drowned out from time to time.

A Little Night Music is a difficult piece to pull off because of the necessity of adopting and sticking to an antiquated style of comedy. This production is on its way to being entirely credible in that style and may only have suffered from underrehearsal, a problem that even now is being remedied. Performances continue at the BTF Playhouse in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts, through July 19.

Metroland Magazine, 10 July 1986

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