Frisco — Nearly two decades into the 21st century, it’s more evident than ever that Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music (with book by Hugh Wheeler) is one of the masterpieces of musical theater of the 20th century. Up in Collin County, where fields of hay and sorghum stretch out next to gleaming office towers, Theatre Frisco (formerly Frisco Community Theatre) currently presents an intimate, imaginatively produced, well-sung, and impressively acted production of that monument of the Sondheim canon.
Directly inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night from 1955, A Little Night Music draws an equal influence from Mozart (as the title, appropriated from one of Mozart’s best-known instrumental works, clearly indicates). Profoundly ambiguous familial relationships similar to those in The Magic Flute, as well as complex sexual entanglements reminiscent of Cosí fan tutte, abound. And, like Cosí, A Little Night Music is an ensemble piece par excellence, with an array of widely varied, challenging, and multi-layered roles.
Easily the most intriguing approach to her role comes from Rae Hillman as the excruciatingly virginal 18-year-old bride Anne. Hillman plays up the hints of neuroses and self-fulfilling paranoia in Anne’s character, topped off with a gratingly irritating—but absolutely appropriate to the role—Valley Girl inflection. Hillman’s hints that Anne’s character flaws may be deeper than just immaturity leave one wondering whether her transformation at the end will lead to happiness or just more dysfunctionality.
One of the more telling (and disturbing) moments of the drama passes quickly between Hillman as Anne and Robin Clayton as Petra—when, in a cruel shift from girl-on-girl intimacy, Anne, the mistress of the house, suddenly and glibly pulls rank and issues commands to Petra, the maid. Clayton, meanwhile, sails through the always haunting role of the servant girl who knows, better than anyone, that life is short and pleasure fleeting. Clayton delivers Petra’s folk-inspired aria “The Miller’s Son,” arguably the best (though not the most famous) song in the show, with the necessary combination of romance and cynicism; Petra is a life-loving young person forced to know, all too soon, the harsh realities of her position in society. Hopefully the ensemble disconnection between Clayton and the orchestra have cleared up since opening night.
The most famous song in the show, “Send in the Clowns,” belongs, of course, to the character of the aging actress Desirée Armfeldt. Karen Raehpour performs the entire role with towering, stage-filling presence, and brings, as well, a richly textured voice and arresting timing to the climactic moment at which the flagship song emerges. Opposite Raehpour as Fredrik Egerman, John Wenzel effectively portrays a middle-aged (and paunchy) lawyer, all-too-eager to sacrifice his dignity to the pursuit of lust. Eric Feldman exudes a vulnerable and desperate religiosity as Fredik’s son Henrik—his celibacy clearly doomed in both the script and Feldman’s insightful characterization of the role. M. Shane Hurst acts and sings the role of Count Carl-Magnus superbly.
Rounding out the cast, Sara Massoudi as Fredrika provides the personification of innocence in the presence of the sexual turmoil surrounding her, while Barbara Catrett delivers, with tired dignity, the wisdom of the retired courtesan Madame Armfeldt. As the Countess Charlotte, Andi Allen convincingly plays out the tension and bitterness of a woman with an openly unfaithful husband. The Liebeslieder Singers, the quintet which functions as the Greek Chorus of the piece, demonstrate a level of consistent vocal skill and beauty.
One of the miracles of Sondheim’s score is the complexity that transforms into relentlessly appealing music. Any classically trained musician can appreciate the formal craftsmanship present here, and any listener with a heart and ears can appreciate the tuneful momentum. There’s some, but not a lot of dancing in A Little Night Music (efficiently choreographed by Emily Leekha), but it’s the score itself that dances in the relentless, throbbing waltz rhythms Sondheim creates here. Director Neale Whitmore moves the characters across the stage with elegant deftness, often creating pleasantly surprising juxtapositions and placements. (The staging and delivery of the lines is, in this production, fairly generous with phallic humor). The size of the theater, in a repurposed space in a larger civic complex, lends a consistent immediacy to the performance.
Rodney Dobbs’ sets, the main feature of which is a set of five Persian rugs, provide an ideal surface for this social comedy; a small gazebo suggests the country estate, and Victorian couches and chairs, always on the edge of the stage, produce appropriate interior scenes. (In one visual anachronism, Count Carl-Magnus reads from a Swedish newspaper, while, a few minutes later, Henrik carries a book clearly and visibly labeled “Holy Bible” in English.) Costumes in keeping with the era while providing distinctive character attributes are credited to Dallas Costume Shoppe.
A small, admirably skilled orchestra of strings, winds, and keyboard accompany (there is no percussion part in this skillfully wrought score), conducted from the digital keyboard by Vahn Phollurxa. An acoustic piano, with its much greater range of expressiveness and real, unmanufactured timbres, would be much more effective for a show like this in a small theater intimate setting. One might also question the need for electronic amplification of the voices, with the inevitable distortion, in a space in which the actors are never more than a few feet away from the most distant audience member. This viewer is old enough to remember when microphones were not deemed necessary in so small a space, and to witness numerous concert and operatic performances in larger rooms in which voices and instruments blend and balance readily.
The one other oddity of the production is in the chilly temperature of the theater, which is apparently out of the hands of the company’s management staff. They do, to their credit, provide small blankets for audience members who arrive dressed for the Texas heat outside. (I brought my own jacket.) But, along with the blankets or an unseasonal extra layer of clothing, the heat from the performance helps to keep the audience plenty warm.