The (Almost) Glamorous Life by Matthew Murray

    ALNM1.jpgAs long as it contains jewelry of gold and diamonds, does it matter whether the box is plastic or velvet-lined oak? How you answer that question will determine the level of enjoyment you'll derive from the precious, if not glittering, production of A Little Night Music at the White Plains Performing Arts Center.

    This chicest of musicals composed by Stephen Sondheim, who with librettist Hugh Wheeler adapted the show from Ingmar Bergman's 1957 film Smiles of a Summer Night, has also always been among the easiest to revive because it ultimately requires little more than elegance. The cast members must project that quality in abundance, plus by robust singing actors (a rarer combination than you might think), but it's also vital in terms of the piece's overall atmosphere. The mud-splattering fights and high-ghettoized bitchery of Wheeler's delicious dialogue always play best when there's a sizable disconnect between the well-turned-out turn-of-the-20th-century Swedish people you see and the petty childishness that informs all their actions.

    The WPPAC production's director, Sidney J. Burgoyne, has rounded up a largely marvelous company that brings lusty zest to the human half of the equation; the world in which they live is not defined remotely as well. T. Michael Hall's costumes are colorful but spare, appropriately suggestive of the period but not much more. Michael Hotopp's scenic design, however, is barely that: Hotopp has transformed the stage into an ivory box onto which can occasionally be sprinkled a minor set piece or two, but which evokes no identifiable visual concept. The lighting (by Jesse Belsky) and choreography and musical staging (by Melissa Rae Mahon and Sean McKnight) are, likewise, distractingly functional. Their frugality is understandable, their economy of creativity less so. A Little Night Music, one of Sondheim's most intimate full-scale musicals, need not look like a Titian painting come to life, but it does require some sense of style, however cost-conscious. The look of this production is, at best, strikingly unimaginative.

    It does not, however, take long for that to stop mattering. Burgoyne has ensured that in practically every other way, this is a highly appealing Night Music. He hasn't skimped at all on the laughter, the romance, or the star power that have (since its 1973 premiere) made this Sondheim's most unabashedly entertaining musical. The blending of high comedy with low, intimate solos and duets with exciting set-piece ensembles (particularly the Act I finale, the nimbly portentous "A Weekend in the Country"), and the bubbly follies of youth with the darkly simmering concerns of middle age have made this a show nearly everyone can instantly relate to. Sondheim and Wheeler might keep things elevated, but even the wildest moments are so rooted in recognizable emotion that they always feel close enough to touch.

    ALNM2.jpgOf course, it still benefits greatly from charismatic talents in the key roles, and there is no shortage of those here. This production may be lacking in beyond-Broadway marquee names, but it's one of the most talented and well-assembled Night Music ensembles I've ever experienced.

    Penny Fuller and Mark Jacoby are grand delights as on-again-off-again lovers Desirée Armfeldt and Fredrik Egerman, who rediscover each other by chance and won't stop until they've reignited the flame between them. Jacoby's pliable diffidence and modern-operettic voice give him the both the authority of a lawyer and the unsteadiness of an old man who never resolved the issues of his youth. Fuller is equally convincing whether sweeping about as a dynamic but dusty actress or fighting for (and against) the various lovers vying for her attention. Her Desirée never wields a joke overhand, and seems to have calculate the most devastating attacks well in advance of their deployment. But if she seems so sturdy you're sure her heart could never break, that's also part of the costume she wears: Her "Send in the Clowns" in Act II is one of the most moving, but not overblown or self-indulgent, renditions I've seen, a just-enough attempt to stay upright even though she's dissolving from the inside out.

    As Fredrik's 18-year-old virgin bride of 11 months, Erin Davie (best known for playing the young Edie Beale in the Broadway production of Grey Gardens) displays all the necessary playfulness and purity of spirit the character needs, but none of the undue knowingness that can spoil her reluctant rise to womanhood. Porcelain of features, silver of comedy sense, and golden of voice, Davie is a true treasure here, floating through a deceptively difficult role without a hint of a stumble. At the opposite end of the age spectrum, Sheila Smith is pure, unfettered earth wisdom as Desirée's retired-courtesan mother, profundo in both her basso (but superbly preserved) singing voice and in her character's icily lacerating routing of the shortsighted idiocy that surrounds her. Her soft growl of a manner is so clear-headed and decisive, you can't help but think part of the reason she so captivated the titled men of Europe was because she purred to them the one thing they could get nowhere else: common sense.

    That's exactly the quality missing from Stephen R. Buntrock's portrayal of Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, Desirée's puffed-chest and empty-headed dragoon lover: and wonderfully so. Many actors tend to play him as oblivious rather than obtuse, which can make him a leaden foil for the more flighty Fredrik. Buntrock makes him an automaton of instinct, driven only by his desires for fighting and sex, allowing him to believably justify this risibly regimented man's every deplorable action. The role of his wife, Charlotte, is one of modern musical's greatest gifts to stage comediennes, and Rachel de Benedet (so searingly funny in the Christopher Durang film noir spoof Adrift in Macao two years ago) is more than up to the challenge. She's unflappable in spouting out the bons mots that proscribe the character's pursed-lip fatalism, but is also far younger and more sensual than many who play the role—this cranks up the heat of competition during the rapid-fire heart wrangling of the second act.

    ALNM3.jpgEddie Egan is solid if seldom vivid as Fredrik's seminary-bound son, Henrik, finding in him the proper balance of libidinous curiosity and spiritual frustration. As Petra, the embodiment of what Henrik doesn't quite know he longs for, Laura D'Andre is saucily playful (if conspicuously lower-class), though her theme-spanning second-act solo "The Miller's Son" is oddly low-key. Katie Henney is acceptable, if utterly unremarkable, as Desirée's daughter Fredrika. The members of the go-everywhere Liedersinger chorus (Jonathan Gabriel Michie, Leah Jennings, Christy Morton, Branch Woodman, and Eleni Delopoulos) would do well to tone down the hamming that sours the sung overture that should set the evening's mood right at the outset.

    They sing splendidly, however—musical director James Bassi has given unflinching due to the show's musical values, both in terms of the cast members and the six-piece orchestra (playing excellent reductions of Jonathan Tunick's original orchestrations). I won't claim that if you're familiar with the show you won't miss some of the more grandly scored passages, but the music is all agilely and gracefully performed.

    It's because so much attention has been paid to so many minuscule details that you wish more had wound its way into the design and choreography. But the scrupulousness that does exist, in the places where it will most benefit the show as a story, is why this lean A Little Night Music so extravagantly resonates.

    A Little Night Music runs through Sunday, March 22, at the White Plains Performing Arts Center, in White Plains, New York. Click here for more information or to purchase tickets.

    Photos by Gustavo Monroy. Top to bottom: Mark Jacoby and Penny Fuller; Sheila Smith; and Erin Davie and Rachel de Benedet.

    Saturday, March 07, 2009 at 10:33 AM | Item Link

    The last five columns written by Matthew Murray:

    03/13/2009: Once in a Long Weill

    03/07/2009: The (Almost) Glamorous Life

    03/05/2009: Only for... Uh... Well... Sometime...

    02/13/2009: Not Quite Back to Before

    12/30/2008: The Line of the Year

    For a listing of all features written by Matthew, click here.