From the performers’ point of view, there are easier shows to tackle than Stephen Sondheim’s 1973 hit, A Little Night Music. The score is legendary for its challenges, which include acrobatic pitch changes, unusual phrasing, polyphony, and multiple songs that begin separately and then “converge.” What’s more, the rapid-fire lyrics require flawless articulation and an agile verbal intelligence. And then, of course, there’s the acting. Unlike so many characters in musical theatre, Sondheim’s are as complexly as they are clearly drawn: each of them undergoes some kind of significant change as they hurtle through the farcical plot.
The moments of spoken dialogue actually matter here, and the performer has to be able to show real human vulnerability and emotional presence — without the aide of musical accompaniment. Not an easy thing to pull off convincingly in the world of high artifice that is the American musical. But the current production at SART, under William Gregg’s direction, represents a valiant, and in many ways successful, attempt to do so.
If you’ve never seen A Little Night Music before, you’ll be surprised to discover that despite the title, it has less to do musically with Mozart’s Serenade No. 13 in G Major (known informally as “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”) than it does with, say, Maurice Ravel.
In fact, the show’s title is really nothing more than a rather quaint sexual innuendo. This is in keeping with the rest of the show, the theme of which I think I can safely say is good old fashioned, down-home, family-style Lust. Insofar as lust turns out here to have a quasi-spiritual dimension — linking it with our ideas of longing, hope, dreams, happiness, fulfillment, etc., but also memory and regret — we’re still safely in the current of mainstream entertainment.
But as a cigar sometimes really is just a cigar, so too a penis joke sometimes really is just a penis joke. Sondheim shows himself to be remarkably inventive in this area. Nevertheless, when SART informs us in the program that “the ‘rating’ of this production is PG-13,” they err on the side of excessive prudence. The show is raunchy, but sophisticated, and it implies far more than it shows.
In its essentials, the plot is adapted from Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night, which sounds suspiciously innocuous for anyone familiar with, say, The Seventh Seal. In any event, we begin in Sweden around the turn of the previous century, with an aging lawyer, one Fredrik Egerman (played here with melancholic charm by Peter Tamm), who has yet to consummate his marriage — after eleven months.
Soon we find out why: his wife, Anne (Katherine Sandoval Taylor), is easy on the eyes but rather silly — as only a naive and narcissistic 18-year-old can be. Yes, that’s right: Mr. Egerman has married a girl who is young enough to be his granddaughter. No amount of Hollywood (or Broadway) glamour can relieve this situation of its essential creepiness, and despite her annoying qualities, the girl’s sexual reluctance should be easy to understand. Even Mr. Egerman understands it, and that’s part of his pathos.
Meanwhile, the love of Egerman’s life, an aging actress and courtesan named Desiree Armfeldt (Elizabeth Aiello), is back in town to fan the old flame for her own reasons. Her current lover, a dim-witted dragoon named Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (whose dim-wittedness and chauvinism Ben Starr Coates captures with hilarious bluster), doesn’t take too kindly to his new/old rival.
Throw a couple of spurned wives, an overzealous and sexually repressed son, a precocious daughter, a sassy grandmother, a lascivious maidservant and a loaded pistol into the mix, then stir them all up at a chateau over the weekend, and you’ve got the recipe for a good time.
But there’s more. Weaving in and out of the main action is a kind of Greek chorus of entertainers, the “Liebeslieder Singers,” who serve to transition many of the scenes, and who have a couple of the more delightful numbers in the show. With his fine baritone and his relaxed and captivating stage presence, Timothy Wilds is especially fun to watch — and hear.
The choreography throughout, by husband and wife team Tina and Nathan Mueller, is crisp and effective in a way that lets all the performers look good. This spectacle is all the more pleasant given the excellent costumes by Leigh Margaret Manning and the airy, mobile set design by Richard Seagle. And the music, performed by a small chamber ensemble under Chuck Taft’s direction, is excellently done — if at times (especially during the dance numbers) a little too quiet.
The production does have its weaknesses — the occasional flubbed line, missed entrance or shaky light cue, as well as a misguided straining after emotion — but these are easily forgivable in light of the show’s obvious strengths. Moreover, they are the kinds of flaws one hopes will gradually disappear as the run progresses and the actors settle into their roles. Only the transitions, and in particular those involving set changes, seem to have presented consistent problems the night I saw the show. If several of the scenes felt weak or unfocused, it was in part because they were allowed to piffle out while the set was being moved around and the actors were finding their places. This was unfortunate. However serviceable the dialogue is, it’s not good enough to be left dangling by itself in the void. Not in a musical anyway, where silence is a little too eerie.
All things considered, however, SART’s 36th season is off to an admirable start, and its version of A Little Night Music does more than merely suggest why the original Broadway production won 6 Tony Awards, 6 Drama Desk Awards, and a Grammy for Best Original Cast Show Album.
A Little Night Music playing through June 27 at Owen Theatre, Mars Hill College Campus, Mars Hill. For tickets: 828-689-1239 or visit www.sartplays.org. $30.
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler. Director: William Gregg. Music Director: Chuck Taft. Choreographers: Tina and Nathan Meuller. Set Designer: Richard Seagle. Lighting Designer: Robert C. Berls. Costume Designer: Leigh Margaret Manning. Sound Designer: Jeffrey Silverman. Stage Manager: Cindy Baldwin. Starring: Elizabeth Aiello, Jane Bushway, Chris Caggiano, Myriah Clifton, Ben Starr Coates, Savannah Crespo, Jeremy Gale, Mary Elise Jones, Josh Miller, Rebecca Phippard, Rachel Shipley, Peter Tamm, Katherine Sandoval Taylor, Beverly Todd, Timothy Wilds, Alison Young. Musicians: Jim Anthony, Martin Houghtaling, Sabrina Kumar, Virginia McKnight, Oleg Melikov, Kara Poorbaugh, Taya Ricker, Oliver Weston. Production runs through June 27, 2010, 7:30pm, plus some matinee performances (check online schedule).