Theatre Review: Short North Stage’s A Little Night Music Looks at What We Find in Twilight
Short North Stage kicked off its 2015-2016 season in earnest last Thursday with a sumptuous, nearly-perfect production of Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and Hugh Wheeler’s (book) gorgeous, delightfully cynical look at romance and sex, A Little Night Music (adapted from Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night). Early on, Madame Armfeldt (a very funny Linda Dorff) describes the three times a summer night smiles. The first for the young who know nothing, the second for fools who know too little, and the third for the old who know too much. The musical highlights each of these stages of knowledge (self-knowledge and knowledge of the world) and the hilarious and sad complications in the wake of the havoc they wreak.
The first act introduces us to aging lawyer Frederik Egerman (Mark A. Harmon), his second wife, Anne (Jennnifer Barnaba), still a virgin 11 months into their marriage, and his son Henrik (a hilariously grim JJ Parkey) a tortured soul returned from the seminary, as well as their servant Petra (Eli Brickey). Frederik’s arc intersects with old lover Desiree Armfeldt (Marya Spring), still an acclaimed touring actress, her daughter with the weighted name Frederika (Maria Dalanno), her current lover Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Nick Lingnofski) and his wife Countess Charlotte Magnum (Kate Lingnofski). The second act concerns a weekend in the country at Madame Armfeldt’s estate where everyone, including the Count and Countess who are not invited, hopes revealed secrets will get them what they want.
A Little Night Music, and especially this production directed by Michael Licata, is about the way twilight, that fade to darkness at the end of the day, starts imperceptibly at first and then seems to descend like a black tarp. It’s about the way twilight heightens everything, every sense, just for a short time and then reminds you of how much seems duller. Mostly, it’s about memory, how flings grow into great love affairs or great love affairs turn into bitter rendezvous, how the road not taken glows and the path you worked so hard on seems not worth the time upon looking back.
Sondheim has referred to the genre being played with here as a “tragic farce” and both halves of that term are given equal weight and prominence. The dazzling virtuosity in the intersection between music and lyrics here, the high-wire act, is never just showiness, there’s a dark heart and a flashing knife under those fireworks.
The core relationship, Frederik and Desiree, arcs around coming to terms with disappointment. Harmon’s Frederik is a marvel, likeable and self-aware enough to get big laughs as his arrogance gets egg on his face again and again. He’s so supple a singer he makes the shift in “Now,” his entrance song, swing between the poles of sexual frustration – the staccato listing and rejecting of literary models for seduction, “De Sade is too trenchant and Dickens too frantic. Stendahl would ruin the plan of attack for there isn’t much blue in The Red and the Black,” into the long sigh of a line, “Even now, I still want and/or need you…” – seem almost effortless. Spring’s Desiree is a vision of light and good humor with the scars that always accompany that lightness. She’s devastating as she finds something to grab at in a desperate bid to right wrongs done her and undo parts of her past then realizes the folly of this. She even finds something new and fresh in “Send in the Clowns,” the most recorded Sondheim, breaking hearts like glass on lines like “I thought that you’d want what I want. Sorry, my dear,” and “Me here at last on the ground, you in midair.”
The Count, played with hilarious electricity as a bumbling braggart by Nick Lingnofski, and Countess, a razor-sharp, charming Kate Lingnofski, occupy a more static place here. Their situation is in no danger of changing and while the Countess finally acknowledges a few things, they aren’t really revelations. The Count has the same flaws as Frederik but they’re amplified by his lack of charm, empathy and imagination. His song trying to reconcile what’s before him, “In Praise of Women,” with its allusions to a martial beat, is one of the most frantic, hilarious sequences on the stage, and his duet with Frederik, “It Would Have Been Wonderful” underscores all the themes of the play with ribald foolishness.
The theme of settling and the real but frequently ambiguous balm of sex, and the lies and duplicities that often go hand in hand with it, is underlined more directly in two songs alongside the above-mentioned “Send in the Clowns.” The shadow of that implication is a stiletto in Kate Lingnofski’s heartbreaking read on “Every Day a Little Death,” as close as the show has to a clear thesis statement. She and the song twist the common use of “little death” as orgasm into the banality of dying a little every day like a snake eating its tail. The brighter side of that settling comes from Petra in “The Miller’s Son.” Brickey launches into this tribute to grasping onto everything life has to offer before the inevitable acquiescence happens with lusty, righteous bravado. “In the meanwhile, there are mouths to be kissed before mouths to be fed and there is many a tryst and many a bed. There’s a lot I’ll have missed but I’ll not have been dead when I die.”
Licata’s production balances everything in this musical perfectly. He and choreographer Dionysia Williams use the score composed almost entirely of waltzes both directly and in more subtle back-and-forth ways. He uses the gorgeous set designed by Ray Zupp to it’s fullest, working with fore and background to reinforce the dramatic action. One of my favorite parts of this production was the use of the five-person Greek Chorus who are neither somber shadows nor all-seeing bystanders. They, foremost among them Edward Carignan and Kristen Basore, are lusty ghosts, illuminating the fringes of scenes and reminding us of the sweetness of even vague memories – “Ah, how we laughed! Ah, how we cried! Ah, how you promised, and ah, how I lied.”
There are still a few sound issues, mostly uneven micing and drop-outs but the 11-piece orchestra conducted by musical director Lloyd Butler sound phenomenal and the trend continues of every full production I see at Short North Stage sounding better than the last.
For mainstream, big-stage musicals, it doesn’t get better than this. A perfect symbiosis of classic material in assured hands.
A Little Night Music runs through November 1st with shows at 8:00pm Thursday through Saturday and 3:00pm matinées Sunday. For tickets and more info, please visit shortnorthstage.org.