Review: Passions ignite in stylish 'A Little Night Music' but comes up short at The Encore
The cast of A Little Night Music, now playing at The Encore. Courtesy of Michele Anliker
DEXTER-Digging into the treasure trove of artistic properties by the great Stephen Sondheim, you’ll find a menagerie of acclaimed works that seem to pop up once every two or three years at the theatre; shows like “Sweeney Todd,” “Into The Woods” or “West Side Story” all register fondly to many theatregoers. In the case of The Encore Musical Theatre Company, they’ve went into the depths to bring “A Little Night Music” to their audiences- a show heavily regarded by those who know their Sondheim, but may not convert any new theatre buffs on their inaugural viewing. While, like many of Sondheim's works, it offers an ambitious musical score (this one cleverly written almost all in waltz time) and definitely demands the right cast; which, The Encore has acquired. You’ll either love it or not.
This is a juicy and tender show that requires delicate patience, and understanding. The musical, rooted in 1900s aristocratic culture, is based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film, “Smiles of Summer Night.” Similar to the Swedish based film comedy, “Night Music” pits passion versus respectability and, safe to say, Sondheim hits the more harsher notes in his take on the story, and director/choreographer Matthew Brennan is here to make sure we don’t get lost along the way.
Originally produced in 1973, “Night Music” is a fascinating study of the relationships we build and encompass. An almost nightmarish descent into privileged indecency, the plot itself is one shifting puzzle of courtships and suppressed desires after another where a half-dozen characters inhibit Jeremy Barnett’s eloquent scenic design; who lays out the framework for a web entanglement of pure chaos.
Standing at the center of it all is famed actress Desiree - (Kristina Riegle turning in a nuanced performance) - serving as the main object of desire, and a conceited conspirator of sorts with a lustful tendency to rattle the cages of those who chase after her. She has a great natural beauty and a daughter (played exceptionally in this performance by Olivia Goosman) who she keeps tucked away with her fragile and formidable grandmother (Anne Bauman) in the country.
One of two suitors includes respectable lawyer Fredrik (Jay Montgomery) and the pompous and arrogant “officer of the dragons” Carl-Magnus (played with a sadistic burst of energy by Sebastian Gerstner). These two help to make an intriguing love triangle that only grows to become more complicated as Fredrik is currently wedded to eighteen year old Anne (Emily Hadick), who is younger than her moody stepson Henrik (Clayton Sallee) who is home from divinity school - awkward.
Meanwhile, Carl is shacked up with his snooty and long suffering wife Charlotte (Leah Fox) who - paired with Gerstner - help give the show a breath-of-fresh air-dynamic. While the performance seemed to lack vibrancy at times (combined with some rough vocal patches), as soon as Fox and Gerstner thrusted on stage, the tides changed drastically. And, fresh off her Wilde award, Sarah B Stevens livens her scenes with a rowdy energy as Petra; a lusty maid trying to seduce anyone within her reach.
That’s only the partial set-up for the true pandemonium set to take place in Act II - when this clever band of characters are set to come together under one roof. Thus propping up “Send in the Clowns," and the iconic musical number does not disappoint and neither do a few seductive rendezvous in the haystacks. The second act flows much better than the overstuffed beginning, which culminates in a nearly three hour escapade (with intermission). Sometimes, length can be a blessing and a curse, and the book for “Night Music” occasionally overstays its welcome.
Joseph Daniel, last seen music directing “She Loves Me” for The Croswell, is up for the task of bringing the score of challenging Sondheim interludes to life; which blend nicely with Sharon Urick’s fashionable and neat costume design. But perhaps the best technical marvel belongs to lighting designer Melissa Williamson - who deserves award recognition this time around - for her beautiful transitions. Oftentimes, those of us who see theatre (including myself) forget how vital certain design elements are to the process and
Williamson not only helps convey the story with glowing chandeliers and candles - she almost steals key scenes without putting one foot on stage. Tera Woolley also does firm work with a crafty sound design that sneaks in to help boost a sequence when you least expect it.
At the same time, my issues with the show are far less about the direction, technical design, or acting, and more so about the script. Some of the lyrics and references may not land for a more contemporary audience; for example the song “Now," sung by Fredrik, that draws witty parallels to unflattering circumstances about his wife’s virginity is filled with references to "The Red and the Black," Hans Christen Andersen, and Stendhal, to name a few. While the wit is present, it puts more stress on the actor to make sure the humor lands in a contemporary climate. While I did discover the irony in these situations and did find myself having a laugh at these characters to an extent, a lot of lyrics and lines ultimately seemed to fall a bit flat.
Be that as it may, this company still pulls what they can from the material, which still has its legions of followers behind the marquee. And, like a giant waltz, Brennan uses The Encore’s space decently, keeping a constant stream of flowing movement; which, to his credit, is impressive. I always respect theatres who take initiative with ambitious or underdone productions that deserve more of a spotlight, and “A Little Night Music” can go a long way, but in this instance, the show came up short of finding its spot.
IF YOU GO:
A Little Night Music continues through October 14th at The Encore.
To purchase tickets you can call (734-268-6200) or visit www.encoretheatre.org