Sondheim's A Little Night Music Employs Magical Music in a Company of Fools
Photo by Lynn Lane Oh what fools these mortals be
Has any classic Stephen Sondheim musical ever looked quite so ravishing as this Houston Grand Opera production of A Little Night Music, borrowed from Opera Theatre of Saint Louis?
Sondheim's multiple Tony-winner, awarded best Book (Hugh Wheeler), Score, and Musical, freely adapted from Ingmar Bergman's period movie romance Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), now takes place entirely within some enchanted woods like one of Shakespeare's beloved magic forests, where lost people, disjointed in love, discover themselves and their rightful partners. Famed couturier Isaac Mizrahi, tripling as director, set, and costume designer, overlays the bittersweet, wry story with an autumnal sheen. Vines twine up the legs of a piano, twigs sprout from bedposts, nature is ever-present. Magic's in the air.
Sondheim's misguided couples need all the help they can get. After 11 months, there's been no wedding night between middle-aged lawyer Fredrik Egerman (Chad Shelton) and his child bride Anne (Andrea Carroll). Needless to say he's anxious and frustrated.
Son Henrik (Brenton Ryan), a seminary student, grouses that the world is too frivolous, while he pines for his virginal step-mother. When old flame, actress Desiree Armfeldt (Elizabeth Futral), appears in town on tour, Egerman eagerly goes to see her for needed release. She, though, is having an affair with married Count Carl-Magnus (Mark Diamond), whose right of noblesse oblige does not extend to his long-suffering wife Charlotte (Carolyn Sproule), who resents her husband's macho bluster and string of mistresses.
Lusty maid Petra (Alicia Gianni) is ripe for all comers, never letting a chance encounter go to waste. Desiree's mother (Joyce Castle), a faded but wealthy old courtesan, bemoans the way the world has gone to seed, but Desiree's young daughter Fredrika (Grace Muir) - we're given the strong impression that she is Fredrik's daughter, too - clearly sees the adults around her as the fools they are.
The entire bunch is invited to Madame Armfeldt's estate for a "Weekend in the Country," where the misguided couples finally get it right. In the season of perpetual twilight where the light dazes and bewilders, the young, who know too little, the old, who know too much, and the fools, who know nothing, are reconciled under the rueful smiles of a summer night.
Sondheim's musical, perhaps his most beloved and accessible, beguiles like the Scandinavian light. It's all theme and variations on waltz tempos, but never once does it overplay or cloy. The music keeps reinventing itself, adding a strange harmony or double rhythm to keep things interesting. Like his smart lyrics that drip sophistication with pinprick insight, the waltz is the perfect sound for this European-inspired operetta that teases the old world while it remains refreshingly relevant to this current one. Nothing changes in the affairs of the heart, Night Music sings with illusive ardor. Love is foolish, lovers are fools, but the world couldn't be any other way.
"Send in the Clowns," Desiree requests in Sondheim's most popular tune, after Fredrik rebuffs her advances. "Me here at last on the ground/You in mid-air." The foibles of love and sex are perfectly matched in her elegantly simple song. Throughout, Jonathan Tunick's masterful orchestrations are replete with clarity and style, as well as supplying an entire semester's worth of insight on how one scores a musical that so utterly conveys the sound of the composer's intent.
Tunick and Sondheim mesh like the Golden Age Broadway team of Robert Russell Bennett and Richard Rodgers. Mostly comprised of strings and woodwinds, the orchestral tone is lilting and gossamer; the score intoxicates like the classiest of palm-court orchestras.
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