A Little Night Music might be classified as a gateway drug to Stephen Sondheim. Whether a fan or a skeptic, once you get a whiff of this vigorous (and tuneful!) exposé on humankind’s mating follies, you’ll crave a whole lot more.
Inspired by Ingmar Berman’s lighthearted romance Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), Sondheim borrows wholesale from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream for his follow-up, in quick succession, to Do I Hear a Waltz, Company, and Follies. Those lead-up works are relevant because it’s as if he’s gathering evidence to indict the institution of marriage – or at least lay bare our fickle thrust of desire.
What’s astonishing about George Washington University’s mainstage production is, firstly, few of the players intend to pursue performing as a profession. Theatre or music are most of these students’ “minors,” yet here they have pulled off a major triumph.
The second feat is that these green civilians can plumb such jaded material. It’s a credit to Director Leslie Jacobson to have coaxed not only refined method but moxie from a mixed-discipline ensemble.
From the introduction of an odd-number-membered Greek chorus dressed to the nines and an opening waltz in which characters exchange partners like tumbling dice, love triangles are the rule in this soap opera set in 1900 Sweden. As GWU Dramaturg Polly Gregory points out, the score exploits ¾ time (the waltz) to emphasize “the instability of the number 3 in love.”
Unstable, indeed. Middle-aged lawyer Fredrik has taken 18-year-old Anne as his trophy wife, but his seminarian son, her peer, secretly pines for his stepmother. Meanwhile, Anne, still virginal after 11 months of marriage, is inflamed with jealousy when she picks up on Fredrik’s latent love for fading starlet Desiree, who is “courting” the Count Carl-Magnus Magnum, whose enlightened wife sets out to seduce Fredrik in a revenge plot against the voluptuous but vulnerable Desiree, whose precocious, neglected but incorruptible daughter is being raised by her saucy sage of a grandmother, who makes no secret of her own checkered past. Whew! You can kiss Downton Abbey goodbye.
And then there is naughty maid Petra, who spreads all sorts of flirty fairy dust around like a lusty Puck.
It’s a rich tableau made even more intriguing by Scenic Designer Kirk Kristlibas’ punctilious set. The round stage is painted in a kaleidoscopic riot of spring, with wrought-iron bannisters and jade bunting demarking two elegant, elevated platforms – a total of three rings on which this sex-crazed circus can play out.
And we’ll cut right to the chase. Where are the clowns?
Judy Collins’ tired hit “Send in the Clowns” exploded from this show’s canon [sic]. Actress Angelina Hoidra’s breathtaking rendition breathes new life into it. Hoidra is simply superb. How unexpected that a dreary song of rejection and regret could be the highlight of a larky musical – and that a relatively inexperienced actress could infuse it with such depth, dignity and mileage. Hoidra stands out as a pro. Her Desiree has a winking, juicy wit that supplies the musk this musical demands. With a mere roll of the shoulder, she captivates.
Annie Ottati, as Petra and dance captain, also impresses with her command of body and craft. Her second-act “The Miller’s Son” establishes her as Sondheim’s mouthpiece – she’s a living vessel for everything he’s ever penned about ambition or happenstance. (And her gift for the belt as well as talent with a croquet mallet makes her someone to keep your eye on, constantly.)
Both showstopper songs, on the surface, seem out of place in tone and theme. But these two consummate thespians do Sondheim proud, as if they’re the clips holding in place a developing picture in his darkroom of cheeky pessimism.
Other absolutely brilliant songs/scenes include “You Must Meet My Wife,” in which Will Low’s goofy but endearing Fredrik paints a false picture of domestic bliss, and “Every Day a Little Death,” the ultimate bloodletting on marriage, sung masterfully by Alexandria Taliaferro as Countess Charlotte Malcolm. The supple Taliaferro sparkles with promise, joining Hoidra and Ottati as this critic’s “love trio” and giving the production 1-2-3 liftoff! But Adrianna Marino as an ebullient Anne, Jonah Bannett as a tortured, tempestuous Henrik, and Marcelene Sutter, who imbues ancient Madame Armfeldt with audacious charm, are among its countless delights.
Of course, there are more than dangerous liaisons going on. The story also vibrates to the number 3, linking life’s key passages – blessed youth, foolhardy midlife and clarity of old age – in the tale that Armfeldt bestows upon her granddaughter about “three smiles” the summer night has in store. Parallels to Shakespeare’s Midsummer ping like chimes – three acts, three sets of lovers, three worlds (real life, theater life, fairy world), three tasks that Puck must perform to make all well in the end. In Little Night, the juxtaposition of theater and real life is downplayed in favor of a three-tiered class structure – commoners (servant class), nobility, and those searchers sandwiched in the middle – the bulk of us.
The Little Night company gels near the end of Act I with its jaunty, ironic “Weekend in the Country,” where all the classes meet on a level croquet playing field – the setup for a sort of Murder By Death climax.
Kristlibas’ set gets even racier and more creative in Act 2 – a pair of Model T’s kick things up a notch, and a gag with shrubbery and butler Frid (the droll Marc Albert who proves NOT to be a cardboard cutout!) lands with more hilarity than Monty Python. I’d be remiss not mentioning lavish costumes throughout by Sydney Moore – top-notch glam visual candy. And although Sondheim has always banked more on acting than vocal chops, there are some fine singers in the mix, especially a lithe Anthony Abron (the Count), and choristers Isabel Bellino (Mrs. Nordstrom), and Maggie Fritz (Mrs. Anderssen).
Smart choreography by Jan Taylor adds polish when dancing pairs move carousel-like (or is it a cuckoo clock?) around the perimeter of the stage. The four-hands accompaniment by pianists Patrick O’Donnell (music director) and Hannah Jeffress is robust and blends seamlessly with the action, especially when O’Donnell provides morose bass lines that Bannett pantomines on cello, and darling Kaiylah Watts as Fredrika perches at the piano like a silhouette next to Jeffress, fine-tuning her ample dowry of intellect.
This time, youth is not wasted on the young. It’s Watts who, out of the mouth of babes, fills the role of soothing truth-sayer. What’s interesting about this cast is almost everyone is young, so Sondheim’s telescopic vision seems viewed through the wrong end of binoculars. I do not suffer fools gladly, and you’d be a fool to miss such a fresh perspective on one of the musical master’s most accessible works.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, plus a 15-minute intermission.
A Little Night Music plays through April 3, 2016, at George Washington University’s Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre – 800 21st Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 994-0995, or purchase them online.