BWW Reviews: A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC Soars at Berkshire Theatre Group
Stephen Sondheim's glorious music can soar with passion at one moment and then fill the heart with doubt and regret. The composer has a genius for going beyond the typical bubbly musical to find depth and meaning alongside the entertainment to make seeing one of his works more than just seeing a show or a fun evening out. It can speak to your heart, too.
Such is the case with A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, for which he wrote the music and lyrics, and paired with the equally wondrous Hugh Wheeler for a story that plumbs the depth of romantic love, deceit, and broken moral compasses. Based on the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night, Sondheim and Wheeler created a work that is highly nostalgic and has a very dark side. That is something that Sondheim knows a lot about, and you find in his ASSASSINS, SWEENEY TODD and FOLLIES, too.
A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC opens in front of the big red curtain of the Colonial Theatre with a rendition of "Night Waltz" that sets the tone for the play to come, set as it is in twilight, on the cusp of a dream. The characters appear and sing their signature songs, among them the actress Desiree Armfeldt (a ravishing Maureen O'Flynn), Countess Charlotte Malcolm (an entrancing Kate Baldwin) and two other generations of the Armfeldts, daughter Fredirika (the innocent Emma Foley), and grandmother Madame Armfeldt (a regal Penny Fuller).
The men in the story seemed to be the accessories to the women here, though Matt Dengler successfully conveyed the frustration and inhibitions of Henrik Egerman, while Gregg Edelman as his father Fredrik employed a sort of passive-aggressive form of pregnant pauses to milk every line he had. Being that he was playing a lawyer, it might be forgiven.
Another dozen characters wend their way through the convoluted plot, but suffice it to say that the story is basically one of people bedding those who they are not married to, and thereby complicating their lives. "Send in the Clowns" is, of course, the show's most famous song, and perhaps sums up the border-hysterical lives the principal characters lead. When the classic is sung by the Berkshire's own Maureen O'Flynn (she lives in Stockbridge) all the commercial versions turn to dust. Hearing its lyrics sung by Desiree puts its meaning into context, and makes the bitter sweet.
The 11 piece orchestra in the pit was magnificent, and looking at the quality of playing that we have been fortunate to hear lately in the Berkshires, it seems that the musical directors are being listened to by frugal boards who are reluctant to pay for truly professional players. Nathan Dame conducted and doubled on keyboard, and the sound, with a full string section, harp and tympani simply made my heart soar as Sondheim's music has never sounded better.
Having such high standards for the music, sung and played, it might have been inevitable that something had to suffer in the process, and in this case it was the scenery which got stiffed. Using the big red curtain over and over rather than an appropriate drop and scrim for the opening and scene changes turned some of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC's downstage songs into vaudeville skits. They deserved more. Overall the sets themselves reminded me of an endless wallpaper pattern and summer curtains, supplemented by three drops - a far away mansion, a hanging door and a hanging window. Basic silhouettes of trees worked well when dimly lit, but in the brighter scenes they looked, well, dreadful, as the burlap that was intended to look like leaves just sat there and looked like....truthfully, just burlap.
The direction by Ethan Heard was fine and the action on stage was not overly full of either detail or layering. The tempi of the music was perfect, but the pacing of the spoken words was far too lethargic, perhaps a reflection of the genteel twilight in which this musical is set. Similarly the choreography of Alex Sanchez was pretty basic, primarily dancers who went gaily round and round to Sondheim's waltz music. It was a wasted opportunity for something more original, though with such excellent singing credentials, perhaps Sanchez had no choice but to go easy on the choreography. We ask a lot of performers in these multi-disciplinary productions.
In the Berkshires, the quality of the regional theatres operating here has risen year by year to the point that many of the shows that begin here end up moving on to other regional theatres, and even New York City. With better sets and some tightening up, this too could be a contender.
The Berkshire Theatre Group presents A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler, orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, suggested by a film by Ingmar Bergman, originally produced and directed on Broadway by Harold Prince, directed by Ethan Heard, music direction by Nathan Dame, choreography by Alex Sanchez; Set Designer- Reid Thompson; Costume Designer- David Murin; Lighting Designer- Oliver Wason; Hair/Wig/Makeup Designer- Jon Carter; Sound Designer- Brendan Doyle.
Cast: Kate Baldwin- Countess Charlotte Malcolm; Monique Barbee- Petra; Matt Dengler- Henrick Egerman; Gabriel Douglas- Frid; Gregg Edelman- Fredrik Egerman; Emma Foley- Fredrika Armfeldt; Penny Fuller- Madame Armfeldt; Ashton Heyl- Mrs. Andersson; Denis Lambert- Mr. Lindquist; Jamilyn Manning-White- Mrs. Nordstrom; Patricia Noonan- Mrs. Segstrom; Maureen O'Flynn- Desiree Armfeldt; Graham Rowat- Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm; Phillipa Soo- Anne Egerman; Eric Van Tielen- Mr. Erlanson
Just under three hours with one intermission, June 30-July 19, 2014 at The Colonial Theatre of the Berkshire Theatre Group, South Street, Pittsfield, MA