It isn't often that New York theater critics go gaga over a Broadway musical, but they did after the 1973 opening of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music, considered by many to be his masterpiece — and that is saying a lot.
The Sunday News' Douglas Watt called it "exquisite — something special, remote, elegant." The New York Times' Clive Barnes said it was "heady, civilized, sophisticated, and enchanting" and compared it with Dom Perignon Champagne. The New Yorker's Brendan Gill went straight to the top: "A Little Night Music comes close to being the perfect romantic musical comedy."
It won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book and Best Original Score, and six Drama Desk Awards, including Outstanding Book and Music. It even won a Grammy for Best Musical Show album.
With praise like that, you'd think that every theater in the country would be clamoring to do the show. But they aren't. Only two area productions come to mind — the St. Petersburg Opera's version at the Palladium Theatre in 2010 and one by the Royalty Theatre Company in 1990 — mainly because the music is so difficult and the story so complex that few are courageous enough to attempt it.
The often ambitious Stage West Community Playhouse opens its version of the show on Thursday and continues for the subsequent two weekends through March 24.
Like many Sondheim creations (Into the Woods, Company, Follies, Assassins), Night Music has lots of characters and several intertwining stories going on at once.
Director Dalton Benson cast several of the area's top actors, including five-time HAMI Award-winner W. Paul Wade (Charley in Charley's Aunt, Stanley in Run for Your Wife) in the lead male role of Fredrik Egerman, a prosperous middle-aged attorney torn between his 18-year-old trophy wife and an aging actress who was his true love many years earlier; and Citrus County theater veteran Chris Venable in the lead female role of Desiree Armfeldt, the aging actress.
Patrons may feel the need for a diagram to keep all the characters straight, but it boils down to three families:
The Egermans: middle-aged Fredrik, his teenaged wife, Anne (Victoria Primosch, three HAMIs), his son from a previous marriage, lusty 20-year-old seminary student Henrik (Patrick Moran, HAMI for Move Over, Mrs. Markham), and Petra (Miranda Griffin, Prudence in Beyond Therapy) as Anne's devoted maid.
The Armfeldts: Madame Armfeldt (Patty Villegas, two HAMIs) as the long-ago courtesan, now caretaker of her shy granddaughter Fredrika (Lauren Ballard, Shere Khan in The Jungle Book), the actress Desiree Armfeldt (Venable) Madame's daughter and Fredrika's mother, and Frid, (Brian Moran, HAMI for Funny Girl), Madame's handsome young butler.
The Malcolms: Count Carl-Magnus (Ryan Roger, HAMI for Mrs. Markham), a pompous officer on the make, and Countess Charlotte (Misty Hornsby, HAMI for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), his long-suffering wife.
There's also a quintet that works sort of like a Greek chorus, commenting on the action and moving it forward, and a page, Bertrand (Jeanine Martin, five-time HAMI winner), who makes a brief appearance.
The story is told from the viewpoint of the elegantly aging Madame Armfeldt and young Fredrika and is set in 1900 in Sweden over a period of a few days.
Act 1 introduces all the characters and sets up the second act, when everything unwinds and rewinds. We learn that although Fredrik and Anne have been married for 11 months, they've never consummated their marriage (did I mention this show is aimed at grownups?). Fredrik buys tickets to a play coming through town, which happens to star his long-ago mistress Desiree, a liaison which he inadvertently revealed in his sleep the night before.
But, wait — by now, Desiree is having an affair with the very married Count Carl-Magnus, which prompts his wife, Charlotte, to plot with Fredrik's young wife, Anne, which leads to, well, all kinds of complications and unexpected resolutions.
Night Music has Sondheim's trademark cynical (some would say realistic) take on romance, marriage, fidelity and, well, life in general, with songs like Charlotte's lament about her own marriage, Every Day a Little Death, and Desiree's sad look at her own romantic track record, Send in the Clowns, the show's one hit song.
A Little Night Music is a challenging show that requires close attention (you might want to read a synopsis before going) to both writer Hugh Wheeler's script and Sondheim's lyrics, as it takes both to understand the details of the plot.
But the effort might be well worth it, as this is a rare chance to hear the brilliant Sondheim at his best.