Sondheim’s A Little Night Music at New Milford’s TheatreWorks: Wow!
Don’t be surprised at that cold draft around your feet when taking in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music at New Milford’s TheatreWorks. Because this is one show that is bound to knock your socks off. It’s that good, thanks to gifted director Bradford Blake, and a cast that is so accomplished on stage, it’s hard to believe the performers are a group of community players, and not some professional company jobbed in from the Great White Way.
Sondheim’s musical is based on Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer’s Night. The film is a comedy of manners in which its characters find themselves paired with lovers or spouses who are uncomfortable fits. What looks at first like frivolous ventures in sexual exchange and couplings is in reality the desperate search for the right love connection, a more serious quest.
The Bergman film and the Sondheim show are somewhat dissimilar treatments of the same theme; the musical is in a lighter mode than the Swedish director’s masterpiece. All the same, the somber overlay we are accustomed to in such films as Fanny and Alexander and Winter Light is accentuated in the musical in the form of Henrik Egerman, a bible-thumping and suicidally disposed young man (played with callow ardor by Brendan Padgett). A cellist, he has the misfortune of being immersed in a strict Lutheran religious code, while having the hots for his stepmother, Anne (played without a trace of guile by the radiant Jessica Stewart).
Anne is married to an attorney, Fredrik (played extraordinarily well by Bruce Tredwell) for 11 months in a relationship that is unconsummated for reasons that are unclear. Her eyes are finally opened to new romantic possibilities with an adoring stepson who cottons on to the advantage of sinning over salvation.
New Milford’s production of A Little Night Music is such a happy combination of direction, performing, and production values, the occasional lapses into sharps and flats are barely noticeable. And performers are backed up by an equally impressive team: musical director Charles Smith, costume designer Lesley Neilson-Bowman, set designer Paula Anderson, and the superb lighting design of Scott Wyshynski.
Director Blake’s ingenuity in staging the musical is everywhere in evidence. He makes stunning use of a turntable on which groups of performers rotate on stage in clockwise motion and exit behind a curtain when their scenes end. The device is dramatically effective, as was his unusual staging of a dinner scene in which all principals sat in a row with their backs to the audience. Curiously, their repartee was as vivid here as it would have been had they been turned around, facing the audience.
Performances without exception were—excuse the redundancy—exceptional, from the lovely cameo portrayal of ingenuous Frederika Armfeldt by the 12 year-old Becca Myhill, to the accomplished characterization of Mademe Armfeldt by the area’s theatrical treasure, Jane Farnol. Ms. Farnol’s Mademe Armfeldt was a delightful study in irony and crustiness—from a wheelchair, no less. When prompted by Frederika to cheat at cards to ensure the desired outcome, Mademe counters, “Solitaire is the only thing in life that requires complete honesty.”
Equally impressive were performances by Susan Pettibone as Desirée Armfeldt, the sometime mistress of Fredrik and Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (played with his customary commanding, and in this case imperious, presence by Mark Feltch). Desirée—as if you wouldn’t have guessed it from the get go—is an actress. Despite the fact she has distinguished herself in plays by Racine and Ibsen, she has a reputation for promiscuity (Ingmar Bergman’s sidelong glance at the traditional gossip about performers down through the ages, although his traveling clown threesome in The Seventh Seal was among the spiritually elect in this searing film).
A highlight of the show was Ms. Pettibone’s rendition of its most popular song, Send in the Clowns. Responding to the impending termination of her affair with Fredrik, she delivers an interpretation of the song that is vocally accomplished and suffused with emotion and subtext.
Outstanding portrayals are also turned in by Priscilla Squiers as Countess Charlotte Malcolm and Jackie Decho-Holm as Petra, a servant girl. Charlotte is a wife forever bewailing her husband’s philandering ways, and whose occasional flirtations outside of marriage belie her steadfast commitment to her blustering and duel-inclined Carl-Magnus. With a realistic grasp on the thing she has with her husband, she complains, “You’re a tiger, I’m a hawk; together we’re a zoo.” Ms. Squiers turns in a performance that is charismatic and beautifully focused, while Ms. Deco-Holm’s opened-faced interpretation of The Miller’s Son toward the end of the musical was delightfully earthy.
All principals were backed up by vocally accomplished performers like Ron Dukenski, Greg McMahan, Catherine McCollian, Jessica Smith, and Jody Bayer, whose presence on stage enhanced the action. Lest it go unnoticed, this is a cast that looks terrific doing the occasional waltz, a tempo favored in this most sentimental of Sondheim works.
If area theatergoers miss this show, it will be their loss and this reviewer’s profit. So they would do well to get on the stick and see this dazzling production.
A Little Night Music opened at New Milford’s TheatreWorks, on September 26, 2008. It runs until October 25, 2008. Performances on Fridays and Saturdays are at 8:00 PM, Sunday matinees at 2:00 PM. Tickets are $26 and may be purchased online at www.thetreworks.us, or by calling (860)-350-6863.