"A Little Night Music" is one of Stephen Sondheim's most elegant and lyrical works, a romantic dance of desire, self-deception, and neatly discovered ways in which love is shaded, defined and enhanced by experience. In this lovely, often enchanting production, a veteran cast, smartly directed by David Armstrong, blend their textured and fully-realized characterizations with Sondheim's rapturous music and lyrics. Surrounded by an attractive set Nancy Thun, dressed in gorgeous costumes Candice Donnelly, with a tasteful and attentive orchestra Joel Fram (Conductor/Music Director), the result is a refined and sophisticated evening of theatre.
The central event of this weekend in the country is the re-kindled love affair between Desiree, a worldly beauty whose life on the stage has left her holding memories that feel as insubstantial as props, and Frederick, a man she loved years ago. On the far side of his prime, he has made the classic error of vanity in search of youth, he has married an 18 year old, now still a virgin six months after the wedding. Hayley Mills, an actress who has spent nearly her entire life in the theatre, brings both authority and wry wisdom to the role of Desiree. The role requires a marvelous range of responses to nearly everyone else on stage. Ms. Mills has exactly the kind of subtlety, complexity and worldliness that Sondheim demands. Unfortunately, her skill as an actress was practically all she brought to the vocal demands of the score. "Send In The Clowns", one of the landmarks of modern musical theatre, was sensitively interpreted and wisely played, but had none of the aching lyricism and melodic yearning embodied in the music. It was, in other words, no so much sung as acted.
In contrast, Stephen Godwin, as the middle-aged Frederick, had plenty of acting finesse, but added to it a gorgeous voice and an impressive musical intelligence. In the musically complex sequence of numbers called "Now", "Later" and "Soon", the virtue of smart, balanced and accomplished vocal talent to deliver that brilliantly devised music was a sheer delight. Overall, the quality of the singing in this production is really quite superb, and that may be why some occasional weaknesses, which might not even be apparent in lesser company, seemed rather jarring.
Mr. Godwin certainly was in good dramatic company in the scenes with Hayley Mills. Frederick and Deseree had a wonderful sense of history, and of the kind of painfully acquired adult experience that makes Sondheim such a mature and satisfying artist. Perhaps best exemplifying both the worldly wisdom and wry acceptance of the frailty of the human heart was Madame Armfeldt, played splendidly by Claire Bloom. This was an instance where the actress brought such authority and depth to the role that one never sensed performance, the visibility of artifice, at all. As an amorous and enthusiastic chambermaid, Kendra Kassebaum added vitality and humor to her every scene. This relatively secondary role was a major success.
The entire production had an abundance of that richly complex blend of foolishly human choices resulting in rueful and sobering consequences. Through it all, however, director David Armstrong, who was also responsible for the graceful and seamless choreography, manages to keep the evening light and slightly intoxicating. These relationships, and the foibles and desires that feed them, are all part of a beautiful, sometimes sad but always irresistible dance. Perhaps that is why, for all the heartache and sorrowful disappointment, this play seems so affirming, so forgiving.
"A Little Night Music" is the first collaborative production between the 5th Avenue Musical Theatre Company and A Contemporary Theatre, and it is a grand promise of how entirely satisfying an enterprise like this can be. Ambitious, confidently accomplished, and appreciated by an enthusiastic audience, it is a success on a very high level. Sondheim writes theatre for adults who have been paying attention to their lives, and he brings his own wrenching insight and dazzling intellect to a unique theatrical mastery. This is a rare pleasure, and one to be savored like a fine wine, sipped late in the evening, under a gentle, summer moon.
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