Just as everyone isn't crazy about watching golf, football or even NASCAR, not everyone will love A Little Night Music, the multi-award-winning musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, playing weekends through March 24 at Stage West Community Playhouse.
To be frank, it's sometimes tough going (especially for the hearing impaired), what with so many characters and unconventional, semi-operatic, Aristotelian presentation (a five-member chorus commenting on the actions, for example), dissonant sounds, contrapuntal singing, unusual three-quarter time music and Sondheim's often machine-gun-fast songs. There's no dozing off during the two hours, 45 minutes the show goes, or you miss everything.
The reward is well worth the effort, as this beautiful, intelligent, moving creation is, arguably, Sondheim's masterpiece, and Stage West deserves highest praise for bringing it to local audiences. Kudos not only for the actors, but also for music director Jack Evans and his eight-piece orchestra, Beverly Dube O'Looney's gorgeous period costumes, Misty Hornsby's lighting that creates just the right moods, and Lynda Dilts-Benson's lovely sets that allow for seamless scene changes.
Set in 1900 Sweden, it's a sophisticated, romantic, anti-romantic story of three families and their tangled, messy liaisons. But, unlike, say, South Pacific or My Fair Lady, it's really not the story that carries this show. It's the philosophy, witty exchanges, music, characterizations and cynical but realistic look at life and love and death that are the meaning of this intellectually challenging musical.
In truth, you need a scorecard to keep up with the characters and the plot lines because, despite the Stage West actors' (mostly) clear and crisp enunciation of the song lyrics, Sondheim's sometimes break-neck pace often overwhelms the message. That's why I highly recommend reading a synopsis of the play and, if possible, listening to the music before seeing the show. Call it doing your homework.
W. Paul Wade is simply wonderful as the portly, aging attorney Fredrik Egerman, married 11 months to the still virginal 18-year-old Anne (an adorable Victoria Primosch), but still rather pathetically susceptible to any woman's flattery. Wade's voice is sufficient, but it's his body language and expressive face that bring Fredrik to life.
Wade is matched to near-perfection by a mature Chris Venable as the aging actress Desiree Armfeldt, Fredrik's lover from many years ago. Ms. Venable's graceful moves and touching voice are precisely who Desiree is, and her shining moment in Send in the Clowns is something to savor.
Patty Villegas gives an award-worthy performance as the elderly Madame Armfeldt, a courtesan who took good advantage of her "productive" years to amass a nice fortune and laments how carelessly and crudely her daughter Desiree handled her "opportunities" in Liaisons.
Patrick Moran is appealing as the lusty young seminary student, Fredrik's son Henrik, pining for his stepmom and comically serious, providing most of the deliciously funny moments. Miranda Griffin is a delight as child-bride Anne's confidant. Ms. Griffin's solo, The Miller's Son, is heart-tugging, but definitely sassy.
Misty Hornsby is a flat-out hoot as Countess Charlotte Malcolm, wife to the pompous Count Carl-Magnus (a delightful Ryan Rogers). Her Countess is blunt, crude and straightforward, her brief drunk scene hilarious. Ms. Hornsby's down-to-earth accent is a striking counterpoint to Rogers' prissy, posing Count Carl-Magnus, Desiree's no longer wanted lover.
Lauren Ballard is a sweet and innocent Fredrika, Desiree's child and Madame's responsibility. The Quintet — Tom Venable, Ashley McCall, Karen Doxey, Brian Moran and Cherie Gamble — put musical refrains into one's head that continue like a carousel into the next day (the la, la, la Overture, for example).
Patrons who left at the opening night intermission, perhaps because of the hard-to-follow first act, missed the best part of the evening. Act 2 is mostly dialogue and slower-paced, easy-to-follow songs, including Send in the Clowns and The Miller's Son, as well as the swelling Night Waltz and wrapping up of loose ends.
For selfish reasons, I hope that audiences support this production. We get plenty of fun farces and dancing girls in our area theaters, and I thoroughly enjoy most of them. Even so, it's a joy to have the chance to see something bold and daring that challenges not only the actors, but also the audience, and I can only hope for more.