Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Little Night Music

Silver, Patterson, Wright and Sondheim—A LITTLE LIGHT MUSIC at FPAC

Some theatre goers have a love-hate relationship with Stephen Sondheim. His music is often beautiful, but complicated to play and sing. His lyrics often have hidden meanings. His plots usually are not the escapist surface level tales from which musical comedy is made. With few exceptions, his style is sophisticated and most appealing to theatre-wise audiences. A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, a production of which is now on stage at Fairmount Performing Arts Conservatory (FPAC) is no exception, but in the hands of director Fred Sternfeld, it gets an audience-friendly approach.

Inspired by an Ingmar Bergman film, Smiles of a Summer Night, LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC opened on Broadway in 1973, and ran for 601 performances. It was directed by Harold Prince and had a cast which included Glynis Johns and Hermione Gingold. The script has experienced several revivals and was made into a film staring Elizabeth Taylor.

The beautiful score includes Night Waltz, Now/Later/Soon, Remember, A Weekend in the Country, The Sun Won’t Set and It Would Have Been Wonderful.

A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC is set in 1900 Sweden. It is a romp focusing on the sexual dalliances of some obviously badly matched couples. The result is a series of love triangles. It is these triangles that gave Sondheim the idea of writing the entire score in ¾ time, thus creating a series of waltz movements that carry over not only in the sound of the music but in the dialogue and lyrics.

The poorly matched couples include an 18-year-old self-absorbed virgin (Anne) who is married to a 50-something lawyer (Frederick), who is still in love with an actress (Desiree) with whom he unknowingly has a daughter (Fredericka). Complicating matters is that his uptight teenage son (Henrik) is in love with Fredrik’s wife. Then there is the affair between Desiree and Count Magnus-Malcolm, who has a wife (Charlotte), who decides to make her husband jealous by pursing Frederick. A maid, who is Henrik’s lover, and a butler are also having a romp in the hay. Sound complicated? Actually, on stage it isn’t. First, the characters are clearly identified, the alliances easy to follow, and the Liebesslider Singers act as our Greek chorus to guide us through the experience and help bring order to mismatched lovers while helping them find the right mate.

The FPAC production, under the direction of Fred Sternfeld, has charm and humor. The cast mainly has fine voices and the character development is generally clear. Even the technical elements are finely tuned.

Doing Sondheim is not an easy task. As a performer said, “Just to understand Sondheim has been a good challenge, just figuring out what it means. There’s a lot of hidden depth in his work. There’s a little laughter, a little tears, a whole gamut of emotions.” Sternfeld and his cast get the meaning and open up the audience to those ideas.

The lead performers are sound, performance and picture perfect. Dorothy Silver, the grand dame of Cleveland theatre, is endearing as Madame Armfeldt, Desiree’s mother, and the spinner of wondrous tales. Silver sing-talks her songs with fidelity and attention to creating meanings from the words with a musical undertow.

It’s worth going to the see the production if for no other reason than to hear Tracee Patterson’s rendition of Bring in the Clowns. Patterson gives just the right serious yet playful interpretation to Desiree.

Matthew Wright is well cast as Frederick, the lawyer going through middle age crisis. He is properly conflicted as a man in a sunrise-sunset relationship who is still in love with a woman from his past. Wright has a fine singing voice.

William Clarence Marshall, Claire Connelly, Bernadette Hisey, Justin Williamson and Lydia Hall, the Liebeslieder (love song) Singers, not only have well-trained voices but carry their acting roles with ease.

Natalie Green is delightful as Petra, a free-spirited young lady who dreams of love in the well sung, The Miller’s Son. Katherine DeBoer is excellent as Charlotte Malcolm.

Though some of the supporting performers have difficulty in creating realistic characters, the strength of the leads and the quality of the singing make those weaknesses fade.

The play’s title is an English translation of the German name for Mozart's Serenade No. 13 for strings in G major, Eine kleine Nachtmusik. Scenic designer Trad Burns has taken this theme and created the set by constructing walls covered with musical notes of Mozart’s score. It is a perfect backdrop for the goings on. Craig Tucker’s costume designs and execution are era right and beautiful in detail. Benjamin Gantoe’s warm lighting helps create the perfect love moods.

David Williams’ orchestra plays well, especially considering that shortly before opening night curtain, the violin player broke her wrist and had to be replaced. Yes, the old adage, the show must go on, was in force.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The FAPC production, under the creative direction of Fred Sternfeld, makes for a wonderful theatrical experience. Go see!