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San Francisco by Richard Connema

An Elegant Art Deco
A Little Night Music

Also see Richard's review of The Glass Menagerie

TheatreWorks is currently presenting a polished production of Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler's A Little Night Music at the Mountain View Performing Arts Center. Robert Kelley, who has earned the reputation as an expert producer of Sondheim musicals, has an incredible cast of singers/actors from New York and Los Angeles joining locals to fill the roles. The director has moved the date of the Mozart-like operetta from 1903 to 1913. Kelley explains that the move is forward to a decade on the brink of World War I, "a point at which there's all kinds of changes in the world - the role of women and how they're going to live their lives".

I first saw the operetta at the Shubert Theatre in 1973 with Glynis Johns, Len Cariou, Laurence Guittard, Hermione Gingold and Patricia Elliott. The musical became a big favorite with English audiences, and I saw four separate productions over the years in the West End, including one at the Royal National with Dame Judi Dench playing Desiree. Columbia filmed the musical in 1978 starring Elizabeth Taylor, but film got very little play and was a box office failure.

Stephen Sondheim has written a beautiful waltz time score for Night Music, with challenging lyrics. The score's complicated syncopations and amazing harmonies are ravishing to the ear. It is without a doubt one of the best sets of music and lyrics that the master has ever written. This music will be played well into the 21st century.

A Little Night Music is somewhat like La Ronde, as husbands, wives, mistresses and lovers interchange relationships on a balmy Swedish midsummer night in the early 20th century. The main character, Desiree Armfeldt, is a beautiful Swedish actress and a catalyst in this drama. Fredrik Egerman is a middle aged lawyer married for eleven months to 20 year-old Anne, and still the marriage has not been consummated. Fredrik and Desiree rekindle their romance. Also in this circle is Fredrik's son Henrik, a serious-minded divinity student secretly in love with Anne. Count Carl-Magnus, Desiree's egotistic lover, and his long suffering cynical wife Countess Charlotte round out the circle. Overseeing all of this is Madame Armfeldt, who has had liaisons with many of the crown princes of Europe. All meet under the "smile of a summer night."

A Little Night MusicDirector Robert Kelley has selected a group of first rate singer/actors to play this cast of characters. Desiree is played by English actress Charlotte Cornwell (former member of the Royal National and Royal Shakespeare Companies in London). She has great comic timing, especially when Fredrik sings "You Must Meet My Wife." Cornwell plays the role with wit and composure. Her rendition of "Send In the Clowns" has a distinctive caustic style, and she makes every word count.

Allen Fitzpatrick (Broadway shows include John Lithgow's understudy in Sweet Smile of Success plus Les Mis, 42nd Street, Scarlet Pimpernel and Damn Yankees) carries off the role of Fredrik with great style. He displays his unresolved passion with his virgin wife in the song "Now" and his fantasy description of her in "You Must Meet My Wife." Fitzpatrick has a fine commanding voice. Stanley Bahorek triumphs as sex-obsessed seminarian Henrik. He has a good, strong voice in the song "Later." Lianne Marie Dobbs, as the child bride who is somewhat afraid of sex, shows good passionate contradictions. Her duet with Charlotte in "Every Day a Little Death" is excellent.

Carmichael Blankenship as Count Carl Magnus shows charisma as the perfect stuffily rigid dragoon. It is a blustering performance by this dapper singer. Alice M. Vienneau is fine as his wife the Countess Charlotte, the cynical woman who puts on a brave face while watching her husband have various affairs. Both have fine voices.

Norma Hughes is exceptional as Madame Armfeldt, the mother of Desiree, giving a commanding performance from her wheelchair. She is sublime singing "Liaisons" in a Katharine Hepburn type voice. Margaret Nichols (who played Jane in TheatreWorks production of Jane Eyre) stands out as the maid Petra. She sings the lusty "The Miller's Son" while the much admired butler of Madame Armfeldt (Tarek Khan) lays prone on the floor next to her. The maid's fingers play with his hairy chest while she sings the eleven o'clock song in a practical and cynical manner. Courtney Stokes is delightful as the young Fredrika, the illegitimate daughter of Desiree learning about life from the world wise Madame Armfeldt.

The Greek chorus-like quintet offers luxuriant, lyrical waltzes with the great voices of James Monroe Iglemart, Barbara Reynolds, Darla Wigginton, Andrew Ragone and Jacqueline McSwanson.

Scenic designer Tom Langguth and costume designer Fumiko Bielefeldt have created a wonderful production that borders on the early art deco period with a certain Maxwell Parish look about it. The costumes are fantastic and they look like something from Erté. The orchestra, under the direction of William Laberatore, gives out a great sound. Once again, Robert Kelley and the cast have done Sondheim proud.

A Little Night Music runs through November 2nd at the Mountain View Performing Arts Center, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View. For tickets call 650-903-6000 or visit www.theatreworks.org.

TheatreWorks' next production will be A.R. Gurney's The Fourth Wall, opening at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto on December 3rd.


Photo: David Allen


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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