insightful in-depth reviews

7, Oct 2014
Patrick Mullen & Grace Gonglewski

A Little Night Music: Sondheim in three-quarter time

by Steve Cohen
The Cultural Critic

A Little Night Music. Arden Theatre, 2014.


Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music rises or falls with its leading lady, Desiree Armfeldt. In the early scenes everyone talks about this glamorous actress, whom younger characters dismiss as “over 50,” as if she’s too old to be sexy. Finally Desiree makes a theatrical entrance, to applause on stage and off.

Desiree’s appeal is important, too, because the male leading characters are flawed. Fredrik Egerman is a widowed middle-aged lawyer, recently remarried to a virginal young lady. He’s an uninvolved father who acts even more elderly than his years and over-intellectualizes everything. His rival is Carl-Magnus, an egotistical count who brags that he’s fought 18 duels with pistol, rapier, foil, spear, bow, poison and rifle. So Desiree is the only character whom the audience can (and must) love.

Past incarnations of Desiree (think of Glynis Johns in the original 1973 cast, Elizabeth Taylor in the movie) were sometimes arch or brittle, with plenty of attitude but little warmth or singing voice. But in the Arden’s current version, the alluring (and 50ish) Grace Gonglewski — ┬árenowned for her Ibsen, Shaw and O’Neill heroines — ┬áinhabits the role with such humor, grace and warmth that there’s no need to wonder why everyone adores Desiree.

A Little Night Music is Stephen Sondheim’s most intricate musical. Virtually all of its music is in waltz time, in keeping with the setting (Sweden, 1900) as well as the theme (remembrance, regret over past mistakes and a search for order).

Yet Sondheim indulges in none of the schmaltz of Viennese waltzes by Strauss and Lehar. Nor does he attempt any Mozart (aside from the prominent use of woodwinds), although the show draws its title from a Mozart serenade. What we hear, instead, are echoes of Maurice Ravel, as in his impressionistic Valses nobles et sentimentales.

In addition, Sondheim wrote contrapuntally here, with three-part song cycles and complex metric changes. Yet I must give the same advice that I’ve applied to Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck, which was composed with structural forms such as passacaglia, rondo and fugue: Forget the technical devices and let the emotion of the music wash over you.

Appropriately, Berg said that he aimed for “coherence” in the structure of his opera: he steered toward one and the same chord for the end of each act. Sondheim’s Desiree and Fredrik similarly talk of achieving coherence in their lives.

A Little Night Music portrays a world of kings, dukes and barons. A quintet of singers functions as a Greek chorus, introducing the action. Mismatched couples dance around the central figures. Fredrik’s 20-year-old son Henrik (played by Jim Hogan) is a confused lad who adores his new stepmother. As if to show the conflicts in his nature, Sondheim gave Henrik a wide range of two octaves, including one spectacular leap from middle B to a long, loud high B as he changes from a self-described “boring person” to an exuberant young man.

Anne, the virginal bride, is played by Patti-Lee Meringo, a lyric soprano with an excellent top. As Charlotte, the count’s wife, Karen Peakes displays a lower range and earthier qualities. Alex Keiper’s role as Petra the servant requires her to sing softly at high altitudes in “I Will Marry the Miller’s Son,” then drop into sensual chest tones when she sings of the sex she’ll enjoy “meanwhile.” Carl-Magnus, strikingly impersonated by Ben Dibble, looks and sounds properly aggressive.

Christopher Patrick Mullen as Fredrik delivered impressive acting and delicately musical singing. Sally Mercer made a funny and touching Madame Armfeldt, although I’d rather see this role played as if her memories are hazy and she’s about to die. Sara Fisher was sweet as Desiree’s 13-year-old daughter.

The show’s vocal requirements, as well as its compositional intricacies, cause some people to think of A Little Night Music as an opera. (Indeed, it’s been performed by opera companies, and Paul Gemignani conducted 47 players from the Philadelphia Orchestra in a wonderful 2001 concert production.) But Night Music contains important spoken scenes and an intimate story that shouldn’t be submerged to its music. In this production, Eric Ebbenga conducted a neat reduction of Jonathan Tunick’s famed Broadway orchestration.

Director Terrence Nolen exercised his customary care in casting voices that handled the vocal demands and also made dramatic sense. Dibble’s baritone voice, for instance, brings richness to a role that’s sometimes sung more thinly by tenors. His deeper voice created needed contrast with Mullen’s lighter voice when the two men sang together in “It Would Have Been Wonderful.”

“Send In the Clowns” is the most popular song Sondheim ever wrote, but in 1973 he had to work around Glynis Johns’s vocal limitations by using a limited range and ending lines with consonants that had short cut-offs. Gonglewski, not usually known as a vocalist, sang the same piece with a power and richness that overflowed the song’s intentional limitations.

Nolen’s staging emphasized the theatricality of Desiree’s life. A full proscenium stage gave prominence to chandeliers and curtains, and lovely birch trees epitomized the Scandinavian setting. Rosemarie E. McKelvey’s costumes were stunning.

In a telling moment in Act I, Fredrik tells Desiree that she must meet his young wife, and finally the two women are in the same room. “This is my wife,” he says. Desiree responds, “And this is my daughter,” as she presents her child.

Gonglewski puts an accent on “This is my daughter” and instantly blinks her eyes as she realizes that she has inadvertently made an embarrassing comment on Anne’s extreme youth. Half a beat later, she smiles as she realizes she’s not at all sorry to have committed the faux pas.

Sondheim’s lyrics can be dexterously tongue twisting, as in: “It’s a very short road from the pinch and the punch/ To the paunch and the pouch and the pension.” Yet that very linguistic brilliance can convey a sense of the show as coldblooded —- easy to admire, hard to love. Thanks to Gonglewski and others, this is a loveable production.