A Little Night Music is frequently referred to just as the Send In the Clowns musical. But just singling out the hit song for the show’s worth would be a terrible mistake, because the rest of A Little Night Music showcases emotional depth uncommonly found in musical theater.
The clues to A Little Night Music’s richness are revealed by simple name dropping. Its source material is the Swedish film Smiles of a Summer Night by famed art-house director Ingmar Bergman. Its composer and lyricist is Stephen Sondheim, who has revolutionized musical theater by stretching its psychological boundaries.
Along with a wonderfully wry script by Hugh Wheeler, A Little Night Music has all the basic ingredients for intelligent theater. Yet, fleshing out A Little Night Music’s sophisticated and sexually charged story of three, summer-night smiles that befall the young, the fools and the old is difficult, and particularly ambitious for a university production. It is a common fact that Sondheim musicals are extremely complex confections to create, so any imperfections become glaringly apparent.
This is the case with the Babcock Theatre’s realization of A Little Night Music, which is a mixed bag full of sweet surprises and a few faulty features.
The first standout that immediately strikes the viewer is the exquisite work of set designer Victoria Goro-Rapoport and Sandra Anne Hobbs’ costumes, which both vividly create a dreamy art nouveau oasis of Tiffany stained-glass, organic ironwork framing and Mucha posters brought to life. Particularly ingenious is Goro-Rapoport’s rotating turntable and changeable set. In a theater with no wing or fly-space to change scenery, Goro-Rapoport’s achievement is a triumph over what would be seemingly impossible.
The next sense that is satisfied comes from the sounds of the show’s singer-actors. Unlike the nails-on-chalkboard singing that tainted the Babcock’s last musical, The Threepenny Opera, the majority of the ensemble has a good set of pipes supported strongly from their acting foundations.
And what a difference it makes to have actors performing the songs instead of singers that merely vocalize them with little emotion or thought to what the lyrics are saying. In the Babcock Night Music, it is the women who give the best performances, from the standout turns of Jessica Roylance as the 18-year-old virgin bride Anne Egerman to Saren Nofs-Snyder as the abused and sarcasm-quipping Countess Charlotte Malcolm.
And while her initial entrance and lyrics pass by in an unintelligible whir in The Glamorous Life number, Holly Brown as the aging star Desiree Armfeldt has all the power to imbue both her role and the song Send In the Clowns as a powerhouse of emotional regret and critical self-contemplation. Brown’s feat is amazing, especially since she is playing a character several years older than herself.
That’s not to say that everything is ideal in the musical, especially when the chamber orchestra occasionally hits a wrong note or you compare some of the male actors to their fine female counterparts.
As the sexually repressed seminary graduate Henrik, Scott Asti’s approach to the role as a buffoon doesn’t quite bring out the inner torment his character is experiencing. And as Count Carl-Magnus, Dan Beecher performance as a puffed-up, tin-soldier chauvinist is more like an actor playing the part instead of someone who has brought the actual character to life.
Both Asti and Beecher also have the misfortune of having singing voices that do not stand out for their strength. While having actors perform Sondheim can be more gratifying than singers possessing nothing but beautiful voices, Asti and Beecher’s misguided acting does not make up for their singing.
In the prominent role of the aging lawyer Fredrik Egerman, Robert Scott Smith’s performance is very good, but perhaps a bit too subdued for a man who is trying to recapture his dried-up youth.
In the hands of director Dawn McCaugherty, A Little Night Music has wonderful touches and small glitches that make the performance delightful, but ultimately prevent the show from achieving a full cohesiveness. McCaugherty’s idea of utilizing the show’s talented and omnipresent Liebeslieders (a kind of Greek chorus) as minor characters, statues and even furniture is a clever idea, even though they do clutter up the stage and distract from the main action every once in a while.
Other directing choices by McCaugherty’s were also questionable. Madame Armfeldt’s song Liaisons performed by a wonderful Stacey Jenson, cried out to be sung with an occasional wink and nod to the audience, but instead it was performed as an inner monologue. And in the same vein, Mila Borrero’s fine vocal delivery of Petra’s song The Miller’s Son was so audience-directed you felt she would break into the title song from Cabaret at any moment.
And while McCaugherty did a good job of keeping the preview performance moving along at the right pace, there were times that the show hiccuped as it failed to flow cinematically as the script demands.
One flaw marring the production at quiet moments comes entirely from poor scheduling. For most of A Little Night Music’s run, constant tap dancing from Crazy for You upstairs at Pioneer Theatre Company will inevitably reverberate downstairs to the Babcock Theatre. Unless you attend the performance on a Sunday, expect muffled sound of precision-tap-timed thunder and rumbling to accompany parts of the show.
Despite its flaws, much of the beauty of A Little Night Music is still able to shine through. By the time the final waltz slips in and the stars swirl around the sky, the audience is left with an indelible feeling of wistful pleasure and regret over the human follies that come with playing love games.
A Little Night Music plays through May 17 at the Babcock Theatre, located downstairs in Pioneer Memorial Theatre at 300 S. 1340 East. Call 581-6961 for ticket and performance information.