Arizona Repertory Theatre
UA’s 'A Little Night Music' lightens up the evening
Tale of sexual frustration but what most people know is 'Send In The Clowns'
“A Little Night Music” is not Stephen Sondheim’s greatest work, though no one is sure exactly what is. Still, this tale of sexual frustration and philandering, based on Ingmar Bergman’s film, “Smiles of A Summer Night,” and told with a certain Nordic reserve, has its devotees. What most people know about the musical is the song, “Send In The Clowns.” The 1975 version by Judy Collins was Sondheim’s only actual hit on the popular music charts.
The Arizona Repertory Theatre presentation of “A Little Night Music” is a perfectly enjoyable show. However, the UA’s last Sondheim production, 2011’s “Into The Woods,” was extraordinary and perhaps raised expectations for this work. It’s unfair, but this presentation of “A Little Night Music” seems a little disappointing by merely being very good, rather than great.
A story with lots on down low
The story centers on widowed lawyer Fredrik Egerman and his new, young bride, Anne. Their relationship is long on affection, but short on love, both emotional and physical. Fredrik’s son, who is about Anne’s age, is home from trying to tame his passions by studying to be a minister.
The tale is moved along by both a chorus and a narrator. The five-member chorus helps transition the story. It moves from the frustrations of Egerman household to actress and Fredrik’s former mistress Desiree Armfeldt, whom Anne and Fredrik watch at the theatre. Afterward, the frustrated Fredrik visits Desiree at her room for a reunion.
The narrator is Desiree’s mom, Madame Armfeldt, who is raising Desiree’s 13-year-old daughter, suspiciously named Fredrika, born following Fredrik and Desiree’s affair. Madame is a bit disappointed in her daughter’s casual approach to life and love, especially since in her own day, she shared her favors with kings and princes. She’d be especially disappointed in Desiree’s affair with Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, a buffoonish caricature of nobility, who on surprise leave from military maneuvers, interrupts Fredrik and Desiree.
The Count is the source of most of the show’s comedy, vexed at possibly being cuckolded by his mistress, and positively apoplectic at the thought of being cuckolded by his wife, when she flirtatiously threatens at a dinner party at Madame Armfeldt’s to do to the Count what he’s doing to her.
Our emotional highpoint?
Late in the play, Desiree realizes her lost opportunities and struggles with regrets, leading to the musical number sung to Fredrik, “Send In The Clowns.”
What should have been the show’s most moving moment, by virtue of both story arc and audience familiarity, is undercut by over-reliance on parlando style, singing moving into speech, a style used most notably by Marlene Dietrich and Rex Harrison. Sung by Audrey Roberts as Desiree, the performance loses much of its power by focusing on its world-weary dramatic aspects rather than having faith in its musical qualities.
While “Send In The Clowns” underwhelms here, the very next number shines brilliantly. “The Miller’s Son,” is an energetic song and dance solo with Sarah Bartley as the Egerman’s saucy maid, Petra, who earlier tried to seduce Henrik. Bartley’s performance, admittedly more physical, reaches a depth and energy that makes it the high point of the show, contrasting not only in tone from the somber previous song, but also in emotional resonance.
In the end, Anne runs off with someone her own age (guess who?), freeing Fredrik for a life of true love and happiness with Desiree and Fredrika.
Another great UA team
As usual, the high level of talent in the UA program is evident, both in students and faculty. Particular standouts include the aforementioned Audrey Roberts, who gives a near-perfect performance as a fading bon vivant, her gestures and glances far beyond her years. Bartley, a minor character throughout, threatens to steal each scene she is in, until blossoming in her late solo. Micah Bond as Count Carl-Magnus Carlson adds another excellent comic portrayal to his college resume, which includes Trekkie Monster in “Avenue Q,” starring as the Creature in “Frankenstein,” and Jud in “Oklahoma.”
Assistant Professor Miranda Crispin’s direction is clear and modestly elegant, befitting the reserved tone of the production. Her choreography, especially for the ensemble group numbers, is equally clear and unfussy (she also discreetly choreographed this season’s “The Full Monty,” showing all in a way that fulfilled the promise of the play without a hint of lewdness). Richard W. Tuckett’s luscious period costumes are practically characters themselves that the actors get to inhabit. Kudos also to the off-stage 10-piece orchestra.
The UA’s “A Little Night Music” should satisfy stalwart Sondheim fans, who can be highly opinionated about his works. It is also a serviceable introduction (before moving on to “Into the Woods” or “Sweeney Todd”) for anyone not already familiar with America’s greatest living musical theatre composer.