Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Hugh Wheeler. Directed by Peter Jorgensen. Produced by Patrick Street Productions. At the Gateway Theatre on Saturday, October 14. Continues until October 21
The summer night in Sweden smiles three times: once on the young, then on the foolish, and finally on the old. We’re told this in the first moments of A Little Night Music, and this evocation of a Scandinavian twilight presages the musical’s plot.
The story line is full of horny Swedes. It’s the turn of the 20th century, and the middle-aged Fredrik (Warren Kimmel) has taken a second wife, the 18-year-old Anne (Arenia Hermans). Henrik (Caleb Di Pomponio) is Fredrik’s sad-sack seminarian of a son, but he’s also in love with his young stepmother.
Fredrik reconnects with a former lover, the exotic Desiree (Katey Wright). Her current paramour is Count Carl-Magnus (Nick Fontaine), a buffoonish dragoon who carefully divides his amorous hours between Desiree and his long-suffering wife (Lindsay Warnock). These liaisons are blithely observed by Desiree’s daughter Fredrika (Elizabeth Irving) and her mother (Patti Allan), herself a veteran breaker of hearts and loins across the Continent.
If this reminds you of Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, that’s because they both draw from the same source material, the classic Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night.
A Little Night Music is a Sondheim musical, so the singing is as complicated as the romantic dalliances. It’s a score filled with pitch changes, complex metres, and contrapuntal group numbers where performers sing different songs simultaneously. The cast does admirably, mastering the challenging music. Hermans and Rose McNeil as the maidservant Petra stand out among the singers. Warnock is also a sardonic delight with great comic timing between songs.
The musical is most famous for “Send in the Clowns”, a maudlin little number made famous in recordings by Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins, among many others. Sung by the veteran actor Desiree, the song bears a title that comes from vaudeville, where, if the show wasn’t going well, they sent in clowns to distract the audience.
Unlike many musicals, though, this show does not leave you waiting around for that familiar tune. The whole production is full of wry, jaunty songs that make for a very entertaining evening.
It’s a sex comedy written in the ’70s and set 70 years earlier, so the gender politics leave a lot to be desired. In the vaguely rapey song “Now”, Fredrik contemplates how he might deflower his young wife: “The option that follows, of course: A, the deployment of charm, or B, the adoption of physical force.”
Director Peter Jorgensen tries to update the show by starting it with the cast in modern clothing, and by having Petra sing about marrying “the miller’s son” while putting clothes back on a female lover.
Unusually, I reserve my main criticism for the audience at Saturday night’s show. They were slow to warm, missed all the best jokes, and didn’t appreciate the production’s quality. During the closing bows, a couple of rude audience members actually stood not to applaud, but to leave prematurely.
A Little Night Music is a great musical in its bones, and this rendition made it look gauzy and effortless, like an enchanted summer evening.