Dallas — In 1955, as yet largely unknown Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman audaciously announced himself to the world, barely concealing his debt to Shakespearean comedy in the tangle of sex and love in the movie Smiles of a Summer Night. In 1973, composer Stephen Sondheim and playwright Hugh Wheeler responded with equal audacity by setting the by-then iconic cinematic work as a Broadway musical, boldly borrowing the title from one of Mozart’s most beloved orchestral masterpieces for A Little Night Music.
This summer, Theatre Three and director Marianne Galloway take the audacity a step further, presenting an engagingly intimate, stripped-down but emotionally rich version of the opulent, almost operatic musical in the tight space of the Norma Young Arena Stage at the Quadrangle in Dallas.
As of 2017, it’s clear that Sondheim ranks with Gershwin and Bernstein among the most skilled and inspired composers in Broadway history. In the score of A Little Night Music, as in virtually all his other creations, Sondheim exploits the unconscious power of complex counterpoint on the listener as well as the hypnotic grip created by a relentless triple waltz rhythm—a strategy that would have been deadly boring in the hands of a lesser composer. (Rest assured, Mozart would have had no trouble approving and admiring the results.)
For this production, designer Michelle D. Harvey’s almost non-existent scenery, consisting of bare wooden posts, unobtrusive (and entirely non-functional) ropes and pulleys, and two raised platforms, provides a perfect minimalist backdrop for the complications of the plot. Next to the bare scenery, Michael A. Robinson’s beautifully complex costumes—a veritable Belle Èpoque fashion show of richly colored and patterned gowns for the ladies—provide not only a visual feast but unmistakable character indicators, from Mme. Armfeldt’s elegantly dark dowager attire to Carl-Magnus’ ridiculously showy, medal-bedecked military uniform, as ludicrously blustery as the man who wears it.
The exception to the bedazzling costumes comes in the costuming for the “Quintet.” Originally created as a set of minor-but-named characters, and intended to be attired in the same turn-of-the-20th century dress as the rest of the cast, this ensemble of singers provides a central musical role as well as functioning collectively as a commenting Greek chorus. Galloway and Robinson dress this quintet in everyday attire of our time—interestingly placing the men in the sloppy college-boy casual, while the three women wear dressier outfits one my see in a weekday in a law office or among, well, ladies who lunch. Most intriguingly of all, in the opening scene, adolescent Fredrika (Grace Moore) is the one character who sees (or, maybe, dreams) these ghosts of the future; possible meanings of this setup are as numerous as audience members.
The musical content of A Little Night Music ranks among the most difficult in the Broadway repertoire; detail-conscious Sondheim wrote a score offering constant technical challenges, in addition to the virtual impossibility, because of complex over-lapping of numbers, of transposing to suit any particular singer’s range. The strongest singing of the Friday evening performance I attended came from a vocally outstanding Quintet. Among the principal characters, John Knether as Fredrik turned in the best vocal performance. Other than that, in the finest Broadway and musical tradition, these excellent actors relied on character and presence rather than vocal facility when singing. Not surprisingly, in this intimate space, this production opts for a slimmed-down orchestra of three strings and three reeds under music director Scott A. Eckert, who kept the pace moving appropriately while facilitating the difficult task of these singing actors.
While there’s not a weak moment in the song list, the two greatest moments in A Little Night Music, dramatically and musically, arrive near the end, in two intuition-defying songs. As Desiree Armfeldt, Jennifer Keunzer delivers “Send in the Clowns” (the unlikely lyrics of which are based on what you do in a circus when catastrophe demands audience distraction) with heart-rending presence; from where I sat, she and Knether as Fredrik appear in strikingly profound profile, staring into the vast, disconcerting realization of the irrecoverable loss of youth. Soon after, the equally unlikely arrival of a fake old English ballad, “The Miller’s Son,” gives retrospective depth to the role of the promiscuous maid Petra, performed winningly by Jacie Hood Wenzel. At that point, we’ve seen Petra wickedly and playfully using her sexuality against her social superiors; with this song, we realize seduction is her only weapon and defense, and that she knows, better than any of her cohort, that the journey from the pleasures of youth to old age is, as she sings, “a very short road.”
Vocal mediocrity aside, the principals present uniformly strong dramatic performances. Sondheim and Wheeler excel at creating characters who, like all of us in the audience, are flawed, irrationally motivated, sometimes mean, often foolish, and always vulnerable. Ellie Hertel brings the appropriate calculated, virginal silliness to the role Anne; Russell McCook plays Henrik not so much as a bumbling dork, but as seething sexuality personified and packed into a black Lutheran seminarian’s suit, ready to explode. As Charlotte, Ashlie Kirkpatrick maneuvers coolly through the maze of the rich, angry, emotionally abused, and still infatuated wife of a faithless husband.
Almost half a century in, A Little Night Music pretty well holds permanent status in the canon of the lyric stage in America; this beautifully up-close, uncluttered and wonderfully acted production is one superb way to experience this masterful portrayal of the funny and sad dilemmas and ecstasies of love.