Online since August 2002

South Coast Rep teams with Sondheim for beautiful night music

Published September 2007

By Carol Davis


A Little Night Music
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Suggested by a film by Ingmar Bergman
Directed by Stefan Novinski
Musical direction by Dennis Castellano

South Coast Repertory
655 Town Center Drive
Costa Mesa
Through Sept. 9

For an evening of pure entertainment, a visit to Costa Mesa to South Coast Repertory (just across the street from the South Coast Shopping Plaza) is in order. Kicking off its 44th season, SCR is mounting Stephen Sondheim's lovely and charming boudoir farce, "A Little Night Music" that, according to the composer "was written in some form of triple time, so that the whole score would feel vaguely like a long waltz"

With music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, the story is based on the late Ingmar Bergman's bittersweet film, "Smiles of a Summer Night," the first of his films to win a special prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1956. The original 1973 Broadway production of Sondheim's musical garnered six Tonys, including Best Musical, and it's not difficult to understand why. While Sondheim's melodies may not always bring satisfaction to everyone's ears, played and sung in the right setting, as in "Night Music," they can't be denied as some of the most beautiful. One of his more popular, "Send in the Clowns," comes from this show and puts into context the farce, tragicomedy and, yes, tenderness it epitomizes.

If that's not enough to entice you, consider a time when the waltz ("born of a country dance, the ländler, and shares the waltz's three quarter time and revolving, circular steps" first appeared in Vienna. It was believed to be erotic and sensual because of the close contact with the dancers' partners' bodies. Public uproar over the closeness and dreamlike movements caused it to be legally banned in parts of Switzerland and Germany. Something to ponder. Now two hundred years later, Sondheim's tribute to the waltz is played out in "Night Music."

A Little Night MusicCast of 'A Little Night Music'
The plot of "A Little Night Music," set at the turn of the century Sweden, is somewhat of a conundrum. With deft direction by Stefan Novinski, a convoluted scheme involving misconstrued glances, unwanted advances, huge egos, unfaithful dalliances, adultery, love, lust and duels, "Music" unravels in three-quarter time and by evenings end all's well that ends well. Novinski guides his talented players seamlessly. How it all gets sorted out is the genius of both Sondheim and Wheeler, as the music, oh-so-clever lyrics and events glide like a waltz through the thickening intrigue to its ultimate resolution.

Consider a father, Fredrik (Mark Jacoby), whose second wife, Anne (Carolann Sanita), is about the same age as his son Henrik (Joe Farrell, wonderful as the ever-guilty son). Imagine that after eleven months of marriage, the union has not been consummated. Imagine that the son, who is studying to be a Lutheran pastor, is madly in love with his stepmother. Now imagine the father, frustrated with his young wife's excuses, meandering off to his old flame Desirée (a stage actress played by Stephanie Zimbalist, a woman who steals the hearts of married men), who is more than willing to rekindle their past love affair.

But wait, there is more! Count Carl-Mangus Malcolm (Damon Kirsche), Desirée's current lover, gets all bent out of shape when he discovers Fredrik in her boudoir and in his dressing gown. Sensing that something is rotten in Sweden, he challenges him to a duel. Needless to say, both men are out of practice and nothing is resolved as both manage to make complete fools of themselves. Meanwhile, the count's wife, Countess Charlotte Malcolm (Amanda Naughton), who knows about her husband's dalliances, decides to go off and have a little tryst of her own. While this cat-and-mouse game is going on, Desirée invites them all to her country home for "A Weekend in the Country" (a production number marvelously performed by the entire company, and choreographed by Ken Roht).

Back at the country house, Desirée's mother, Madame Armfeldt (Teri Ralston), and her granddaughter Fredrika (Katie Horwitch, lovely), who is being raised by her grandmother, await the guests. Madame Armfield's many memories of her own romances with counts and other dignitaries come to her mind, and are shared with her granddaughter. At the beginning of the play, she explains to her granddaughter the meaning of the summer nights. She tells of how the summer nights smile three times at the follies of human beings. The first smile smiles at the young, who know nothing. The second, at the fools, who know too littleā€¦and the third at the old who know too much. With those words of wisdom it's obvious that Madam Armfield, tired of life and understanding that all good things must come to an end, is preparing for her own move to her next adventure. She would like her daughter, Desirée, to give up the theatre and come home and raise her own daughter, an idea not so far-fetched.

When the guests finally do arrive, all hell breaks loose and through a series of comedic bumblings, the odd couples find their mates, the even couples scramble to find theirs and each gets a turn at realizing their folly as well as their dreams. When Fredrik finally manages his way to Desirée's room, it prompts Desirée to sing "Send in the Clowns" realizing that her life on stage isn't the role she should continue to play. She has found her true love and ultimately, so has he, but it's too little too late. The characters and their charade are virtually stripped down to rock bottom and most of the unresolved gets resolved. Young get together with the young, most of the parts now form a whole and all is right with the world according to Sondheim.

What an enchanting evening and what a strong cast. Clad in Shigeru Yaji's beautiful period costumes, the cast and company literally sweep across the stage forming perfect pictures while framing Sondheim's lyrics to the action (with musical direction by Dennis Castellano). Zimbalist, a pro of the highest degree, is simply charming and captivating as Fredrik's found-again lover, Desirée. Zimbalist, who is making her SCR debut in this show, is every bit as commanding as her part demands. Her sense of timing is impeccable and her voice, while not the strongest, easily fits the bill as the middle-aged actress, serious yet able to laugh at herself and gracious while not gloating at the turn of events about her.

Jacoby is modest and convincing as the foolish husband and serious lover, Fredrik. Tones of regret and urgency can be heard when he sings "Now" while attempting to coax his young bride to submit to his sexual desires after eleven months of nothing. Jacoby's voice is pleasant and he is up to the task more as Desirée's lover than as Anne's husband. Anne, answering his pleas after Fredrik decides to take a nap instead of perusing her put-offs, responds with "Soon." She knows in her heart of hearts that Fredrik is really too old for her and she regards him as more of an uncle than a husband as she sings, "Soon, I won't shy away, Dear old ..." Sanita is like a beautiful keepsake, more window dressing for her lawyer husband than wife to him. Her heart will ultimately swoon for Henrik, who's "Later" tells of all his frustrations at not being taken seriously.

Ralston, who appeared in the original Broadway production as Mrs. Nordstrom (one of the members of the company who open the show and who float through a series of tunes setting the stage for what's to come) couldn't have been more perfectly cast as the opinionated and crafty Madame Armfeldt. Her voice is as strong as ever and she is most convincing as the wise family head sitting in her wheelchair, watching over the circus-like atmosphere while drinking to her death as she raises her glass of champagne in a toast "To Life!" at the gathering.

Both Kirsche (seen recently at Lawrence Welk Village) and Naughton are sound as the count and countess. Kirsch is perfect as the pompous count, clicking his heels and looking stern, arrogant and silly as if he were really in control. His "In Praise of Women" confirms his belief that infidelity is simply part of the game men play with women, while Naughton's "Every Day a Little Death" laments her resentment toward her unfaithful husband. And the games and follies go on with no less than eighteen of Sondheim's sometimes familiar and some not-so-familiar tunes and lyrics suited to fit Bergman's comedy/drama.

Other than Sibyl Wickersheimer's scant set design (I've always been impressed with the sets at SCR, but for the overall look these were rather dull outlines of different places sliding off and on stage while doing little to enhance the production) and one loose cannon of a voice rearing it's oft shrill and off-key notes, "A Little Night Music" is a dandy theater experience from the "Overture" to the "Last Waltz."

See you at the theater.

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