Sunday, 26 June 2016

Some bright stars with A Little Night Music

Cutline: Sara Farb shines as Petra in A Little Night Music (David Hou Photography)

A Little Night Music

Stratford Festival 2016

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Book by Hugh Wheeler

Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night

Directed by Gary Griffin

Music direction by Franklin Brasz

Approximate running time: two hours and 45 minutes (with one 20-minute interval)

June 21-October 23

Toll-free: 1.800.567.1600

Reviewed by Geoff Dale

For the moment try to divorce yourself from the grim reality that Judy Collins recorded Stephen

Sondheim’s sombre Send in the Clowns back in 1975, reducing it for many to the status of tired

old chestnut over the 41 years.

Now focus on the present day revitalization of that musically complex song in the Stratford

Festival’s energetic 2016 presentation of A Little Night Music, a rather lengthy production

featuring, as would be expected, some theatrical nuggets from this company.

For those not acquainted with the origins of the work, it was inspired by Swedish filmmaker

Ingmar Bergman’s lighthearted romance from 1955 Smiles of a Summer Night, a movie that

literally put the writer/director on the cinematic world map, won for best poetic humour and

snagged a nomination for best film at the Palme d’Or at Cannes the next year.

Please, no need to adjust your glasses, the mention of Bergman and lighthearted romance in the

same sentence was indeed no mistake, just not the norm for the acclaimed director/writer. While

he trotted out some dark classics like The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, he did have a gift

– though not often used – for humour.

Sondheim then added large sprinkling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and other works and

voila A Little Night Music – his tasty skewering of the institution of marriage – was born.

Apologies for the cliché but the rest is history.

Set in 1900 Sweden, the lengthy act one, crying out at times for some editing, demonstrated that

not everyone in the Stratford Festival cast possesses the acknowledged vocal skills of the

production’s nominal star Cynthia Dale, who as Countess Charlotte Malcolm showcases her

considerable talent both as a top flight singer and an adept stage comic actor able to swiftly toss

about one-liners with great ease.

That minor shortfall is to be expected. So musical director Franklin Brasz counters by making

great usage of the elegantly dressed five-member Greek chorus (Sean Arbuckle, Barbara Fulton,

Ayrin Mackie, Stephen Patterson and Jennifer Rider-Shaw) that periodically interjects itself into

the proceedings to guide the audience through the essentials of the storyline.

Meanwhile, the graceful opening waltz highlights the swift exchange of romantic partners in a

sort of choreographic musical chairs, enhanced by the glorious offerings of 19 carefully selected

musicians – largely piano, woodwinds and strings – conducted by Brasz.

Some have suggested over the years that the composer’s preference for the ¾ time signature (the

waltz) is his clever way of stressing that the number three is incompatible – or at least should be

– in the marriage arrangement. Hence the actors are generally divided into awkward trio

arrangements, complemented by the score.

The prime example of the shaky state of marriage here is provided by middle-aged lawyer

Fredrik Egerman’s strange marriage – more of a mid-life crisis – to his virginal 18-year- old

trophy wife Anne (Alexis Gordon). An oddly quirky marital union without any hint of carnal

activity for 11 months, the joke becomes tired before too long, thankfully breaking away into

various threesomes.

Much more amusing and deftly handled by the principles are the ill-fated romances surrounding

fading but still glamorous/sexually active star Desiree Armfeldt (the superb vocalist/actress

Yanna McIntosh), her lovesick suitor and former lover Fredrik along with her current beau

Count Carl-Magnus Magnum, shamelessly and openly cheating on his wife the Countess in a

hysterically funny buffoonish manner by Juan Chioran.

As the cloddish self-consumed military man Chioran, a standout in A Chorus Line, is an

unexpected treasure, parading about the stage in a marvelously awkward fashion that conjures up

the vision of a stylistic physical comedic marriage of John Cleese (ala Basil Fawlty) and Richard

McMillan, the scene-stealing actor well-remembered by Stratford audiences for his roles in

numerous Gilbert and Sullivan productions of the ‘80s.

Meanwhile McIntosh’s heartfelt treatment of Send in the Clowns is truly a well-deserved show

stopper that firmly places the number back in proper context as a soul-searching personal

reflection on past romantic glories, losses and mistakes.

While there are considerable moments in the show’s almost three-hour duration to choose

favorite moments, actors, scenes and even those that don’t quite make the mark, one standout

throughout is unquestionably the tireless Sara Farb (also appearing as Lucy in The Lion, the

Witch and the Wardrobe) as the feisty/worldly Petra, maid and close friend of Anne.

Her vocal command and accompanying physical dexterity when performing the second-act The

Miller’s Son – laden with its numerous references to life, luck and love - is well worth the price

of admission and much more. Under the capable guidance of director Gary Griffin, Farb provides

the complete package of comedy and drama with shades of pathos – giving the production that

little extra bit of adrenaline necessary for a Sondheim classic.

An audience pleaser that nabs *** out of four stars.

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