A Little Night Music
South Coast Repertory's production of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's A Little Night Music puts the emphasis on "little." Director Stefan Novinski focuses on the musical comedy in the piece, resulting in a show that's a trifle - a little bit of entertaining fluff that's devoid of the bittersweet poignancy fans of the show might expect.
The central story is one of six people who are misaligned romantically, although the production progresses without any doubt that it will all work out well for everyone in the end. There's Fredrik Egerman, the lawyer at the center of the show, the one relatively fixed point around which the insanity revolves. He has a repressed young adult son and a sexually unavailable young (second) wife - and although the audience can tell from their very first interaction that son Henrik is attracted to stepmother Anne, neither Anne nor Fredrik suspect that perhaps Anne's reluctance to consummate her marriage arises from the fact that she might have married the wrong Egerman. So, when the extremely frustrated Fredrik learns that Desirée, an actress with whom he'd had an affair some fourteen years ago, is in town for a performance, he can't help but visit her backstage in the hopes of rekindling old flames.
There's comedy in Joe Farrell's Henrik, as he overplays the young man's awkwardness, singing nasally and wearing nerdy glasses. And there's comedy in Carolann Sanita's Anne, as she plays up the silly and naïve elements of her character, while simultaneously singing quite beautifully. Mark Jacoby's Fredrik is rather normal, compared to these two, and it's not difficult to feel sympathy for him when he approaches Desirée, even though he is, in fact, planning to commit adultery. Stephanie Zimbalist's acting as Desirée is really quite good. It's very clear when Desirée is putting on her "leading lady" persona and when she's being the real woman beneath - a woman who has put all bitterness and baggage behind her, and can treat Fredrik as an old friend (even though she may want something more). Her singing voice, unfortunately, isn't quite up to the task of "Send in the Clowns," and she goes a bit off pitch.
Desirée has a current lover, the dim but attractive Count Carl-Magnus. Damon Kirsche gives Carl-Magnus such a melodic speaking voice, it's almost a shame that the character doesn't have much to sing. Acting-wise, the character is, like nearly everyone else surrounding Fredrik and Desirée, just a caricature - in this case, of the insanely jealous but terminally stupid military man. He is married to Charlotte, a woman who finds herself in the humiliating position of being forced by her husband to investigate whether her husband's lover is being unfaithful to him. It is in Charlotte where Novinski's decision to go for laughs over pathos seems the most misguided. Before singing "Every Day a Little Death," there is a brief moment where Amanda Naughton allows Charlotte's veneer to drop and there's a touch of painful verity to her acknowledgement of exactly how poorly her husband treats her. And then Naughton gets too tightly voiced and overplays the emotion. By the time she gets to the song, her voice is so clipped that she's almost not singing - she's just spitting out each word in the image, but not the reality, of a very stiff-necked, unhappy woman.
Teri Ralston is Desirée's mother, Madame Armfeldt, a woman who spends most of the piece confined to a wheelchair. Ralston seems a bit too strong to be the nostalgic grandmother; when she powers through lines like "Now let me see - where was I?" she doesn't at all appear to be as mentally absent as the script would suggest. And she's often accompanied by Katie Horwitch as her young granddaughter, who - in contrast - doesn't come off nearly as young as the part suggests.
And, finally, there's Petra, the rustic, earthy servant whose carpe diem attitude toward matters of the heart (and body) makes a sharp contrast with the unhappy pairings of those for whom she works. Although Misty Cotton comes off as a bit too modern for this turn-of-the-century piece, her playful and powerful "The Miller's Son" at the end of the show is a song worth waiting for.
The company is rounded out by a five-member singing ensemble, somewhat annoyingly choreographed by Ken Roht. The ladies all pose with their white gloves as though they were enchanted by shadows their hands are casting on an unseen wall. The choreography is all pointing and indicating - the entire company takes it up on the first-act closer, "A Weekend in the Country" - and the synchronized miming detracts from what should otherwise be musically thrilling.
In an odd sort of way, this lightening up of A Little Night Music actually works. It's engaging and sweetly amusing. But it leaves you wondering how much more there could have been.
A Little Night Music runs at South Coast Repertory through October 7, 2007. For tickets and information, see www.scr.org.
South Coast Repertory - David Emmes, Producing Artistic Director; Martin Benson, Artistic Director - presents A Little Night Music. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; book by Hugh Wheeler. Scenic Design by Sibyl Wickersheimer; Costume Design by Shigeru Yaji; Lighting Design by Christopher Akerlind; Sound Design by Drew Dalzell; Choreographer Ken Roht; Production Manager Jeff Gifford; Stage Manager Jamie A. Tucker; Musical Direction by Dennis Castellano; Directed by Stefan Novinski.