A Little Night Music both sour and sweet
by Suzi Steffen
Stephen Sondheim writes musicals for and about adults, and the production of A Little Night Music at the Very Little Theatre doesn’t sugar-coat Sondheim’s intentions. Thanks to strong performances from Sharon Sless and Cate Wolfenbarger, uneven acting and singing from other cast members can’t remove the power from this piece about journeys through love’s blind alleys and cul-de-sacs.
The tale, which Sondheim and book writer Hugh Wheeler cribbed (honestly) from an Ingmar Bergman movie, concerns lust, love and aging. Middle-aged attorney Frederik Egerman (Don Kelley, familiar from the Actors Cabaret) has some trouble with his young wife, Anne (Megan Williams). After 11 months of marriage, Anne still isn’t ready for intimacy, and Frederik finds himself back in the arms of his former lover, actress Desiree Armfeldt (Sharon Sless). Meanwhile, Anne and Frederik’s maid (Cate Wolfenbarger) is hot for Frederik’s son Henrik (Mark Mullaney), who’s pining for Anne. Of course, Desiree already has a lover, a jealous count (Hank Wilson).
Sondheim and Wheeler never let this turn into the bedroom farce it threatens, a few times, to become — even when everyone, including the count and his wife (Erica Jean), ends up at the Armfeldt country home. The plot proves surprisingly conservative: Apparently, the May-December (more March-September) romance of Anne and Frederik disturbs the natural order, which must be fixed. That’s clear in scenes around the most well-known of the musical’s songs, “Send in the Clowns.” Though Sless isn’t really a singer, she acts the role of Desiree with aplomb and fire, energizing the stage. Everything swirls around her, yet she remains steady.
Sondheim’s songs almost always require a combination of vocal dexterity with the ability to enunciate clever lyrics. At times, the singers seem to be delighting as much in the burst-of-genius words as the audience, to the songs’ detriment. Only a few cast members, including Catherine Olson as Desiree’s daughter, can both act and sing well. (The less said about the wandering chorus, the better.) But Williams and Jean deliver the Sondheim classic “Every Day a Little Death” with poignance, as do Kelley and Wilson with the pained and funny “It Would Have Been Wonderful.” Wolfenbarger makes the most of “The Miller’s Son,” which she knocks out of the park and out of the realm of the rest of the show. Along with Sless’ acting, that one scene makes up for a lot. In the end, adults know life’s a mixed bag, and so is A Little Night Music. Decide accordingly.
A Little Night Music runs through April 4. Tix at 344-7751.