Review: Arizona Opera presents a captivating production of Sondheim's A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC

A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC performs March 12th and 13th in Tucson.

By: Mar. 10, 2022

Review: Arizona Opera presents a captivating production of Sondheim's A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC

Last fall, when local companies were announcing their various seasons, one particular show made my eyes widen as I thought, "WHO'S doing WHAT?" I'm talking about Arizona Opera bringing to Phoenix and Tucson a fully orchestrated presentation of the infrequently produced, head-shakeningly brilliant Stephen Sondheim musical, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. Elegant, poetic, heady, romantic, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC is an exciting choice for a large-scale staging leaning into traditional opera. Arizona Opera makes the most of the moment with an enchanting, delightful treat of a show.

The 1973 Tony Winner for Best Musical is sometimes described as an operetta, but I think Concept Musical hits the mark a little closer. The score is a sophisticated love letter to the waltz with ¾ time dominating the score. It's soft on the ears, smile-inducing, memorable. Then, of course, there's Mr. Sondheim's lyrics. From soul-grabbing to witty, I appreciated their projection above the proscenium. It encouraged a deeper dive into the masterwork text. (When they weren't tipping the punchlines!)

Hugh Wheeler's book is inspired by the Ingmar Bergman film, "Smiles of a Summer Night." After a sung overture by an omni-present quintet, we're in turn of the century Sweden where we find a wealthy lawyer named Fredrik married 30 years beneath him. Fredrik and his young bride, Anne, have, as yet, not consummated their eleven month marriage. Anne's hyper-lovely anxiety is in contrast to her gloomy stepson, Henrik.

Frustrated with his celibate marriage, Fredrik visits a touring, top-billed actress named Desiree Armfeldt. The two romanced together a decade and a half earlier. The pair is discovered in a compromising position by Desiree's latest lover, the married Count Carl-Magnus who comically, unreasonably demands fidelity from both his wife and Desiree.

The Countess Charlotte, vexed by the tryst, approaches Anne and brings her up to speed on Fredrik and Desiree's rendezvous. Desiree's mother is persuaded to host a weekend at her estate in the country where the various players begin to play out their love triangles. And that's just Act 1.

Director Keturah Stickann has featured the whimsy and lightened the tone. She's de-emphasized the more dour elements of the plot and characters. It's achieved primarily by easing the Greek Chorus of singers, stilted in other productions, into A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM style fairies and sprites. Her choreography blushes with the pride of a director who's had their concept percolating in her mind for some time. It's a triumph of creativity and execution by each designer bringing her vision to life.

Keith Phares as Fredrik is charming and comical. He quickly grabs our attention and empathy unpacking his marital dilemma. We continue to root for him despite his infidelity, a nod to Phares' charm.

Terrence Chin-Loy as Henrik sings extraordinarily. Missing is Henrik's melancholy. We meet Henrik practicing his cello, a metaphor for his Eeyore vibe. But as performed here, Henrik is indignant and energetic. This means that Henrik and Anne's eventual romantic pairing doesn't solve their individual conundrums.

Anne is debilitatingly anxious. A melancholy Henrik is Anne's perfect match. I'm looking for her to lift his spirits and him to calm her anxiety. I don't get that same satisfaction when their pairing is, instead, dueling neuroses.

Beth Clayton as Charlotte similarly sheds some of her character's more droll aspects in favor of a more upbeat despair. It works for sizable laughs but undermines her second act jokes that depend on her being established as a particularly pessimistic person. Nevertheless, Clayton is a skilled, stand-out comic and her duet "Every Day a Little Death" with the lovely and enjoyable Katrina Galka as Anne is an Act 1 highlight.

Melanie Long as the maid, Petra, is held in the background until she gets the show-stopping "The Miller's Son" late in Act 2. It's pretty unusual for a peripheral character to get the 11 o'clock number. It works in this case as an allegory for the larger plot as Petra contemplates an imaginary future with three potential husbands. Long delivers the diverse tune with range emotionally and vocally.

A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC is Desiree's show though, and Patricia Racette is world class. It is truly a rare treat to get 90 minutes of context before dropping us at the front door of "Send in the Clowns", the classic song we've all heard dozens of times or more without any set up for the ear, mind, and heart.

During Racette's performance I found myself moved by rotating elements. Her voice, her delicious underplay, pivoting to the luck I've had to be alive while Sondheim was creating theatre, the pride that a show like this is a part of the Phoenix artistic landscape.

The production, in general, feels like Arizona participating in a next-level creative exercise. Costumes by Isaac Mizrahi (!) were, of course, stunning. His design nails both the opulence of dinner parties and show-within-a-show theatrics as well as the whimsical forest attire. Lighting Designer, Gregory Allen Hirsch, has deftly set the mood without grabbing attention.

Arizona Opera and, in fact, Arizona has a point of pride with this production. While its Phoenix run was limited to one weekend, the show continues in Tucson on March 12 and 13th. Tucsonians don't miss it. Phoenicians consider making the drive.

A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC performs March 12th and 13th in Tucson. Find tickets at azopera.org



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