Book by Hugh Wheeler
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Gary Griffin
At the Avon Theatre. Till October 23, 2016
Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 Swedish film Smiles of a Summer Night, A Little Night Music represents the three smiles (on youth, adult fools, and old age) with a somewhat Shakespearean sense of dreamlike but rueful comedy, and moves elegantly on the surface of emotion, exposing what lies under social masks and theatrical disguises in a twilit world. The score and lyrics afford glimpses into a shadowy, illusory world of romance, with Sondheim following but also taking off from the world of operetta because he is too daring a composer to miss opportunities for cynicism and sexual tension. The musical focusses on characters summoned to a weekend in a summer house, where young and old lovers intersect, and where lovers’ misunderstandings, jealousies, disguises, and duels combine in a single romantic entity. Widower-lawyer Frederick has a teenage, virginal wife, Anne, who is suddenly drawn to her young stepson Henrik, a musician and candidate for the priesthood. Frederick is himself still secretly in love with Desiree, a famous stage actress, who is, in fact, the mother of their love-child, Fredrika (a gender change from the original version). But Desiree also has another married admirer, Count Magnus, whose wife Charlotte is a friend to Frederick’s young second wife. Then there is also a sensual maid, Petra, who lusts after young Henrik. Hormones rage under moonlight, mixed couples are mixed up in complications, and the ways of this world are observed by the hostess, Madame Armfeldt, in her wheelchair, with the comfort of wine in a Swedish white night.
Gary Griffin’s production has some charm, comedy, and romance, but it is bedevilled by an inexplicably ugly set design by Debra Hanson who has placed copper-coloured smokestacks in the background and uses oversized wrought iron gates for the chateau, thereby ruining romantic ambience. Her costumes are only minimally interesting: the Lebeslieder quintet is all in deadening black with some glittering gold accents; Count Carl-Magnus resembles a stock figure out of Gilbert and Sullivan; and in one of the most romantic sequences at the chateau, all the principal women wear off-white or beige, creating visual blandness.
Fortunately, the orchestra and singers are generally fine, emphasizing the airiness of Sondheim’s waltzes and the sophistications of the composer’s brilliant frivolousness, delicacy, and drama. Musicologists can offer useful analyses of Sondheim’s leitmotifs and his use of popular musical models, such as the sarabande, polonaise, mazurka, and gigue, while explaining how many of the songs are trios or duets or deal with love triangles, and how nearly everything is in triple form and content. The passionate theatregoer, however, can be entertained by the tale itself and its characters’ foibles. There are fine performances by Sara Farb as promiscuous Petra, Ben Campbell as courtly, witty, boasting and complaining Frederik, Gabriel Antonacci as conflicted and confused Henrik, and Yanna McIntosh as Desiree (who scores in the famous “Send in the Clowns” but whose singing voice is otherwise not choice). Juan Chioran scores comic points as the foolishly pompous Count but his movement is stiff, while Alexis Gordon’s girlish Anne is better in song than in acting, and Cynthia Dale is glamorous but superficial as Charlotte, failing to convince us that every day is a little death for her. Rosemary Dunsmore’s Madame Armfeldt is wry and wise but somewhat lacking in tart cynicism. She is scarcely as old as she needs to be, having outlived all her illusions “by centuries.” So, overall, the production avoids being remote or cold but it merely gestures at stings in the heart and head.