BWW Review: A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC at the Stratford Festival is Art at Its Finest
The Stratford Festival's first ever staging of Stephen Sondheim's A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC is happening this season at the Avon Theatre. Directed by Gary Griffin, It is clever, it is delightful, it is funny, it is sad, and it is beautifully performed by everyone involved. Everyone I have spoken with who has seen this production has a different favourite scene or performer. There is so much to take in that it is just as fun to see it a second time!
Inspired by the film: Smiles of a Summer Night, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC explores the comedic romantic entanglements of several couples. The main characters are all quite well-to-do and are living "The Glamourous Life". The audience gets to peer behind the curtain though and see that the "glamourous" life can be just as sad, pathetic, farcical, hopeful and beautiful as anyone else's. Although some characters and moments veer towards the (delightfully) absurd and extreme, there is something inherently relatable in the emotions each character exhibits throughout the show.
There are so many elements that make this production a must-see. The cast that Mr. Griffin has assembled is not only talented, but it is also quite interesting. In many cases, he has plucked members of the company who are known for doing one thing, and given them an opportunity to shine in a new way. For example, Yanna McIntosh, who has graced the Festival stage in many a classical play, had never previously starred in a musical at Stratford. Here, she portrays, Desiree Armfeldt, a prominent actress past her prime who finds herself at the centre of the aforementioned 'romantic entanglements'. This is also Sara Farb's first musical at the Festival (though she does come from musical theatre origins). She plays Petra, a maid who observes (and occasionally mocks) the rich and frivolous people around her, and who also has a great deal of insight into her place in the hierarchy that the society around her has created. The two most recognizable numbers in this musical; "Send in the Clowns" and "The Miller's Son" are sung by McIntosh and Farb respectively. Both performances are incredibly moving, as both women fully embody their characters and utilize each lyric they sing to add depth to the complex women they portray.
Another example of a performer having the chance to do something they probably haven't done on stage before, is Gabriel Antonacci playing the Cello on stage, as Henrik Egerman, a young man who takes himself too seriously, to almost compensate for those around him not taking him seriously enough. The innocence and passion that Antonacci brings to Henrik, manages to make us root for him even when the character is perhaps being a tad overdramatic.
Cynthia Dale is no stranger to musical theatre at the Stratford Festival, having played some of the most famous leading ladies in musical theatre, such as Eliza Doolittle, Maria Rainer, Edythe Herbert, Guinevere, and Aldonza...but here, she gets to do something a little different as well! As Countess Charlotte Malcolm, she is a comedic catalyst that helps set up the romantic chaos. Charlotte may not be the 'leading lady' in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, but what makes her such a great character, and what Ms. Dale clearly understands in her portrayal, is that Charlotte is very much the leading lady in her own story. While one character wrestles with the heartbreak of her husband seemingly having a wandering eye, Charlotte gleefully informs her of her own brilliant plan to sleep with this poor woman's husband in order to address her own spouse's wandering eye. This makes perfect sense to Charlotte, because in her mind, this is her story. Charlotte manages to stir up trouble without falling into the trap of becoming overly 'catty' as so many characters in her position often do. She develops a true camaraderie with the character of Anne Egerman, and she is the first character to demonstrate the ability to laugh at one's self. There is a real humanity to Charlotte and much of it comes from her self-awareness and biting sense of humour. Ms. Dale captures this perfectly.
As Fredrik and Anne Egerman, Ben Carslon and Alexis Gordon also shine. Their characters, along with Antonacci's Henrik (Fredrik's son) are outlined so perfectly in the early number: Now Later Soon -which is actually three separate numbers, weaved into one. Fredrik is a middle-aged lawyer who has recently married 18 year old vain and virginal Anne. Fredrik has a romantic history with Desiree Armfeldt, which he considers revisiting one night, setting off a series of disastrous, hilarious, and life-altering events. Mr. Carlson is charming as the imperfect, yet quick-on-his-feet Fredrik. Once again, he is an example of pitch perfect casting. Ms. Gordon shines as the innocent, and slightly ignorant Anne. She flits back and forth between a youth trying so hard to be a lady, and a lady desperate to experience the youth that seemingly passed her by. Her singing voice is also incredibly beautiful--but we learned that last year with her performance in CAROUSEL.
Yet another fantastic performance comes from Juan Chioran as Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm-Charlotte's husband, Desiree's lover, and Fredrik's rival (if only in his own mind). Count Malcolm is, to put it simply, ridiculous, and in the best possible way. Most of the time oblivious to at least 50% of what is happening around him, eager to catch a glimpse of himself in a mirror, and always ready for a duel, Count Malcolm is a riot!
Another 'character' in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC that I found myself to be utterly and completely enthralled with, was the Quintet. This stupendously dressed and stunningly-voiced group opens the show with an overture of music that we will hear throughout the show. In this opening number, they begin by trying to out-do each other musically, and as the number progresses, one quintet member subtly physically flirts with two others at once-hinting that the quintet may have some possible 'romantic entanglements' of their own to mirror what is happening with the lead characters.. The quintet continues to act as our chorus throughout the production, echoing some lyrics sung by other characters at meaningful times. The members of this tantalizing quintet are: Sean Arbuckle, Barbara Fulton, Ayrin Mackie, Stephen Patterson, and Jennifer Rider-Shaw. This quintet (featured in the above photo) is the heartbeat of the musical and I found myself leaning forward in my seat each time they came onstage.
In addition to the superb performances by the actors, this production is also elevated by some glorious Stephen Sondheim music that the 19-piece orchestra led by Musical Director Franklin Brasz more than does justice to. This music, combined with Sondheim's fast and witty lyrics, make it clear why Sondheim is one of the greats, and why this musical belongs on this stage!
The design by Debra Hanson is also gorgeous. Most scenes have a backdrop of a giant painting, allowing for each scene to look like it has come right out of the painting itself. A stunning and ornate metal gate opens for us at the beginning of the second Act, letting us into the 'glamourous life', and the furniture and overall design, along with truly breathtaking costumes, allows the audience to effortlessly be transported to Sweden in the 1900's.
There is something magical about this production. Every piece just seems to fall perfectly into place, allowing for a truly enjoyable experience!
A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC continues in Repertory at the Avon Theatre through to October
Photo Credit: David Hou