A Little Night Music
Also see Lynn's review of Rancho Pancho
This is a romantic comedy set in the summertime, but the mood of the piece strikes me as somewhat autumnal, with an amused but slightly melancholic nostalgia for a world of class privilege and nobility and servants and dueling that vanished from Europe forever, thanks to two great wars and the Russian Revolution. The setting is Sweden, 1901, and the characters play out their parts unaware that in the next decade the world as they know it will be wiped away.
The music reflects this lack of foreknowledge. The waltz, the archetypal dance of the 19th century upper classes, predominates. Sondheim, in his book of lyrics called Finishing the Hat, says that he created the score as a Theme and Variations, the theme being the three-beat meter of the waltz. Dissonance and primitive rhythms have not yet entered this world.
The main characters are a well-to-do middle-aged lawyer, Fredrik, who has recently married a teenage girl Anne, who is even younger than his son Henrik from a previous marriage (we don't find out what happened to Henrik's mother; presumably she died). Fredrik had an affair some years ago with the actress Desiree Armfeldt (and may have fathered her child Fredrika, but we never know for sure).
Desiree is touring in a play and happens to come to Fredrik's town. He visits her backstage and discovers that she now has another lover, Count Malcolm, a cad who is married to the unhappy Countess. In the second act, all these people (plus servants) wind up at the country chateau of Madame Armfeldt, the wealthy mother of Desiree. Romantic complications ensue. To borrow from another midsummer play: "Lord, what fools these mortals be." You can guess who winds up with whom by the next morning.
There is also a quintet of singers who function as a chorus, commenting on the action and occasionally entering the action by playing small roles. The idea of using a quintet was influenced by Brahms's "Liebeslieder-Walzer (Love Song Waltzes)" written for a quartet of voices and piano. I think this is a miscalculation on Sondheim's part. By giving much of the singing over to the quintet, it limits the main characters to one song each (although some participate in duets or ensemble numbers). One song each is just not enough for me, especially when you have a cast who can really sing and act, as we do here.
This is the show that has the song "Send in the Clowns," which is Sondheim's only real hit as composer/lyricist. Would the show succeed without it? I don't think so. The song is the emotional high point of the show, and it is surprising to find out that it was added to the score during rehearsals, written in about two days, and kept purposefully simple because the actress who was playing Desiree, Glynis Johns, had quite limited vocal range and breath control. Fortuitously, the song works because it is simple and heartfelt and expresses exactly what Desiree needs to express. And Gaye Grant does it justice in this production, and more.
The other songs in the show are witty and sometimes melodious after a few hearings, but in my opinion, they are not really about the characters who are singing them. They are all about Stephen Sondheim and how brilliant he is and what amazing rhymes he can come up with. All you ever hear about Sondheim is what a genius he is. Well, he can be a genius. The lyrics he wrote for West Side Story and Gypsy are as good as any lyrics ever written by anybody. But those were collaborative projects; he had Leonard Bernstein and Jule Styne writing the music, and he had to deal with other people's opinions and restraints. Left on his own, his lyrics often become ostentatious displays of cleverness with perfunctory music so they can be sung instead of declaimed. But then again, he did write "Send in the Clowns."
Enough griping. I am constantly amazed at the high quality of musical theater we have here in Albuquerque given the size of the city and the miniscule budgets that groups like Landmark Musicals have to work with. This is a very good production, sets and costumes very well done, and an excellent cast. Some of the performers (Caitlin Wees as Anne, Travis Ward-Osborne as Henrik, Jonathan Gallegos as the Count) are stuck with parts that are underwritten or just difficult to pull off, but they do admirable work. As does Michael Matthew Finnegan as Fredrik. And the quintet members all seem to be excellent singers.
In an ensemble work, it's sort of unfair to single out individual performers, but I would like to give extra credit to four of the women of the cast. Kate Sarff as Petra, the servant, is given way too little to do, but does a great job with her one number. I hope her next role is a lot more substantial. Erin Warden as the Countess looks exactly the way a Countess should look, and is loaded with talent. And Gaye Grant gives the best account of "Send in the Clowns" that I have ever heard. I wish we would see her on stage in Albuquerque more often.
Then there is the invaluable Jeannie Westwood as the caustic and wise Madame Armfeldt. She is a true professional (who played Anna in The King and I all around the world) and is perfect in this role and spellbinding in her handling of her one solo, "Liaisons." I think the song works not so much because of the melody but more because of its insinuating orchestration (by Jonathan Tunick) which suggests the seragliomost appropriate as this aged courtesan reminisces about her long-ago amours. It is totally entrancing until Sondheim just can't stop himself from putting in the word "raisins" so he can rhyme it with "liaisons." See what I mean? At that moment, the song stops being about Madame Armfeldt and instead becomes about Stephen Sondheim.
But no matter. Jeannie pulls it off. As does the entire production. It should be seen.
A Little Night Music runs weekends through July 31. More information is available at Landmark Musicals' website: www.landmarkmusicals.org.