Sunday, June 14, 2015

A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC opens 2015 season at Porthouse

What do “West Side Story,” “Gypsy,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Company,” “Follies,” “Sweeney Todd” “Sunday in the Park with George,” and “Into the Woods,” all have in common?  Yes, they are shows which have music written by Steven Sondheim. 

Steven Sondheim is considered by many to be the greatest composer of the American musical theatre.  Sondheim, who has won more Tony Awards than any other composer; Sondheim who is also the winner of eight Grammy Awards and a Pulitzer Prize and has a Broadway theatre named after him.  Not bad for a man who has been accused of writing pompous shows with music that is impossible to sing.

Sondheim, who is 85 years old, became friends with James Hammerstein, the son of lyricist and playwright Oscar Hammerstein II, when the boys were ten.  Hammerstein became surrogate father and musical theater tutor for the young Sondheim, whose parents were divorced, and, as the story goes, the rest is history.

Since its original 1973 opening, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, which is now in production at Porthouse Theatre, has been a staple in the repertoire of professional, collegiate and community theatres.

With music by Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, the story was inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smiles of a Summer Night.”  The title is the English translation of Mozart’s “Eine kleine Nachtmusik.”  It is not surprising, therefore, that allusions to Mozart’s “Serenade No. 13 for strings in G major” are heard throughout the score.

The soap-opera story is set in 1900 Sweden.  It examines the tangled web of relationships of Desirée Armfeldt, a famous but fading actress, her wise-beyond her year’s precocious daughter whose paternity has been kept a secret, her opinionated advice-giving mother, her former lover, Fredrik Egerman, and her present lover, Count Carol-Magnus Malcom. 

As the tale unravels, we meet Egerman’s “new” wife, the very young and virginal Anne, and Henrik, his frustrated and overly dramatic son, who is in love with his step-mother. Into the mix, is thrown the Count’s wife, Charlotte, and Petra, Henrik’s lover and Anne’s maid.

Take the entire group, put them together for a weekend in the country, and the stage is set for infinite possibilities, illicit liaisons, open warfare, and endless, but obvious surprises.

The format of the show, as is often the case with Sondheim’s creations, is  unusual.  Instead of an overture, The Quintet enters singing fragments of “Remember,” “Soon,” “ and “The Glamorous Life,” leading into the “Night Waltz.”  The five singers morph into a Greek chorus, which musically comments on the machinations, as the play unfolds. 

As is also the case with Sondheim, the music is intricate.  “Complex meters, pitch changes, polyphony, and high notes for both males and females” abound.  “The  score contains patter songs, contrapuntal duets and trios, a quartet, and even a dramatic double quintet.”  The musical accompaniment consists only of piano, violins, viola and cello, which makes for a lush sound.

The original Broadway production opened in 1973 and ran for over 600 performances, winning the Tony and New York Drama Critics’ Circle awards for Best Musical.  Hermione Gingold’s caustic performance as Madame Armfeldt and Glynis Johns’ interpretation of “Send In the Clowns” were two the production’s high notes. 

Interestingly, it was Johns being a “non-singer” that led Sondheim to write the song in short phrases, with no long musical holds.  As he said, “by ending lines with consonants that made for a short cut-off, the phrases could be acted, rather than sung.”  This structural format makes the composition unique in the annals of well-known Broadway hit songs.

The Porthouse production, as directed and choreographed by Sean T. Morrissey, is slowly paced, and lacks some of the potential humor.  The production would have been helped if the over-stylization present in the Quintet and the servants was duplicated by all of the leading cast.  These aren’t real people, they are exaggerated characterizations. 

Lenne Snively as Madame Armfeldt has the right tone, as does charming Julian Kazenas as the over-wrought Henrik Egerman.  Jim Weaver, as the count, gives hints of the needed melodramatic tone, as does Amy Fritsche as his put-upon wife.  Adorable Talia Cosentino is correctly wise beyond her years as Fredrika.

Musical conductor Jonathan Swoboda has his musicians underscoring the singers, thus allowing for ease in hearing the clever Sondheim lyrics of “The Glamorous Life,” “Remember,” “You Must Meet My Wife,” “In Praise of Women,” ‘A Weekend in the Country,” and “It Would Have Been Wonderful.”  Shamara Costas’ rendition of “The Miller’s Son,” was delightful.   The individual voices and choral blends were consistently excellent.

The musical highlight was Terri Kent’s rendition of the show’s memorable, “Send in the Clowns.”  Acting the words with musical intonations, Kent was able, in contrast to the many pop versions of the composition, to tell the story of the song by singing/saying meanings, not just words.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC is a melodramatic story, with memorable music, that gets a nice production.  It would have been aided by stressing the story’s soap-opera aspects to garner the humor built into the script, thus sending in the clowns.  As is, as represented by the opening night assemblage, audiences will enjoy this evening of musical theatre on the Blossom grounds.

“Little Night Music” runs until June 27, 2015 at Porthouse Theatre For tickets call 330-672-3884 or go online to

NEXT UP AT PORTHOUSE:  VIOLET from July 9-25 and HAIRSPRAY from July 30-August 16.  Curtain times are 8 PM Tuesdays through Saturdays and 2 PM Sundays. The picnic grounds at Blossom open 90 minutes prior to curtain time.