Review: Sullivan Rep's Strong Cast Shines in Sondheim's A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC

Producton runs through June 8 at Newton City Hall

By: Jun. 04, 2024
Review: Sullivan Rep's Strong Cast Shines in Sondheim's A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC
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Late in the second act of “A Little Night Music,” the Stephen Sondheim musical about love – and the amorous, sometimes adulterous, always complicated entanglements that accompany it – the opening lines of the plaintive ballad “Send in the Clowns” ask, “Isn’t it bliss? Don’t you approve?” When it comes to the enchanting Sullivan Rep production of the show, now at Newton City Hall through June 8, the answer to both is a resounding yes.

Sondheim wrote “Send in the Clowns,” perhaps the best-known and commercially succcessful song in his impressive catalogue, expressly for Glynis Johns, who originated the role of Desiree Armfeldt, an aging actress whose fading fame does little to diminish the ardor of her suitors, in “A Little Night Music” on Broadway in 1973.

In subsequent productions, the song has been performed in London’s West End by Judi Dench, and in a 2009 Broadway revival by both Catherine Zeta-Jones and, later, a transcendent Bernadette Peters. It has also become a pop hit for Judy Collins, and a standard recorded by Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, and many more. Elizabeth Taylor even took a turn at it when she starred in the 1977 feature film adaptation of the musical.

Make no mistake about it, though: while “Send in the Clowns” – rendered here with subdued power and poignancy by Carly Evans as Desiree – is at the heart of “A Little Night Music,” the show is anything but a one-hit wonder. If this production, only the second by the nascent Sullivan Rep following their “Steel Pier” this past winter, is any indication, the same will be true for the professional theater company.

Written primarily in the familiar three-quarter time of a waltz, the score is perhaps Sondheim’s most moving and romantic, and is finely complemented by Hugh Wheeler’s book based on the 1955 Ingmar Bergman film “Smiles of a Summer Night.” The show blends humor, heartfelt attraction, and surging emotion to make palpable the many forms that desire, longing, and, most especially, love take for us all.

Set in Sweden in 1900, the action swirls around Desiree and involves not one but two of the married men in her life, as well as their two wives, her elderly mother, her young daughter, the son of one of her suitors, and a young female servant.

Sullivan Rep founder, artistic director, and board president Daniel Forest Sullivan, well known for his work with numerous Boston theaters, directs and choreographs the well-paced production, which features a cast of gifted performers whose gorgeous voices are on full display under Paul Roach’s splendid sound design and in the acoustically impressive Newton City Hall auditorium. A rich-voiced chorus, dressed to match the various scenes, looks on, offering musical commentary.

As Fredrik Egerman, the suitor who resumes his pursuit of Desiree not long after marrying the much younger, still virginal Anne (the sweet-faced Rebekah Rae Robles), Brian Higgins adds vulnerability to his strong voice on “Now,” in which his character laments his sexless marriage, and “You Must Meet My Wife,” where Fredrik tries to persuade himself and Desiree that he made the right decision in marrying an 18-year-old. Jacob Thomas Less is affecting as Fredrik’s teenage son, Henrik Egerman, who becomes besotted with his stepmother.

As Desiree’s other suitor, the brawny if not brainy infantryman Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, Anthony Rinaldi’s ever-present boastful bluster and booming voice guarantee that the dragoon will never go unnoticed. As his wife, Countess Charlotte Malcolm, Andrea Giangreco provides some of the show’s funniest bits, deftly blending humor and wisdom. Being neglected isn’t all fun, however, and Giangreco perfectly captures her character’s pathos, too, as when Charlotte tells young Anne of the ache of living life with an unfaithful partner in act one’s “Every Day a Little Death.”

As Desiree’s mother, the opinionated Madame Armfeldt, Veronica Anastasia Wiseman nails her character’s haughtiness. Her “Liaisons” has less impact than it can, but still serves as a wistful reminder that while Madame may now be confined to a wheelchair, she could once run circles around all manner of younger women.

An excellent seven-piece orchestra, led by Jenny Tsai, adds lushness to the proceedings, and dramatic emphasis to the all-company act-one closer, “A Weekend in the Country,” which portends something other than just tranquility awaiting them on their time away.

In act two, Fredrik and Carl-Magnus duel literally and figuratively over Desiree in “It Would Have Been Wonderful.” Nora Sullivan, Sullivan Rep’s executive director, is a delight throughout as Petra, the uninhibited housemaid. Near the end of the second act, she uses her glorious voice to full effect on the character song “The Miller’s Son,” which has Petra imagining how marriage to three very different men might impact her innate lust for life.

Properties designer Rick Grenier has kept things simple yet respectful to both time and place, aided by the auditorium’s architectural details and Erik Fox’s evocative lighting design. The costumes by DW include corseted gowns of satin and crepe de chine for the female characters, and crisp period uniforms and handsome finery for the men. Bridget Sullivan’s professional hair and make-up design includes a nod, intentional or not, to the legendary Peters, whose signature cascading auburn ringlets are suggested by Evans’ Desiree wig.

Photo caption: Company members of the Sullivan Rep production of “A Little Night Music.” Photo by Doug Keene.


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