“Of course the summer night smiles—three times…at the follies of human beings: The first smiles at the young, who know nothing; the second at the fools who know too little…and the third at the old who know too much…” So intones the aristocratic “Madame Armfeldt” to her wise-beyond-her-years early-adolescent Granddaughter “Fredrika” at the start of “A Little Night Music”—the Tony Award Winning tour-de-force musical from the virtuosity of Hugh Wheeler and legendary composer Stephen Sondheim. Originally Produced in 1973 by the equally celebrated Producer, Hal Prince (who also Directed,) the musical received 12 Tony Award nominations, winning six–among them “Best Musical”, “Best Book of a Musical”, and “Best Original Score”. Loosely based on the Ingmar Bergman film “Smiles Of A Summer Night”, a new production presented by “Knot-Free Productions” in association with “Greenway Arts and Theatre Planners” recently opened at the “Greenway Court Theatre” on the campus of Fairfax High School in Los Angeles, CA. with Direction by Ryan O’Connor and Musical Direction by Anthony Zediker,
Arguably Sondheim and Wheeler’s most sublime work, set in 1900 Sweden, “A Little Night Music” examines the tangled web of romantic affairs (and ancillary complications they bring about) revolving around Actress, “Desirée Armfeldt”, and the two men who want and/or love her. The first, a lawyer by the name of “Fredrik Egerman” has been wed to budding-but-innocent—18-year-old–“Anne Egerman” for 11 months but thus far the marriage remains unconsummated due to her timidity; while the other is a pompous military “Dragoon” named “Count Carl-Magnus Malcom”, who himself is less-than-blissfully espoused to “Countess Charlotte Malcom”, his elegant, but long-suffering wife. When the traveling actress performs in Fredrik’s town, the estranged lovers’ passion is rekindled, leading to a grade-A sex farce that unfolds on a midsummer evening (part of one wild “weekend in the country”) at the palatial country estate of Desiree’s elderly mother, “Madame Armfeldt” (–a woman who has had more than a few ‘liaisons” to her credit!) According to the “Directors Notes” in the program of this new rendering, now the story is being told in flashback, commencing in the year 1917, as a now-grown “Fredrika” has returned to her Grandmother’s Chateau to ostensibly ‘wait out’ the raging Spanish Flu pandemic that was the scourge of that era (sound familiar?) While there, she reflects back on her mother “Desiree”, and the one notorious mid-summer weekend that would change all of their lives. Curiously, very little of this is readily apparent on stage—and when one needs to rely on such printed program notes to explain some of the production’s key concepts you know you’re in trouble; and yet, staging it as a flashback in the elder “Fredrika’s” memory does have abundant charm and imagination.
Enlisting the support of a predominantly female cast (with only two male actors) in several cases it employs cross-gender casting or simply re-envisions male characters into female ones. It needs to be noted though, that this tactic doesn’t always serve the material so efficaciously. Why? Too many of the ‘changes” merely play-out as gratuitous instead. As is also alluded to in the program notes, as a Director O’Connor had been “bothered immensely” by the perception that all these women developed by Sondheim Wheeler, Hal Prince (and even Ingmar Bergman,) were “strong, willful, broadminded, and complicated,” but who (regardless of the time period and its social mores,) “still left their fate in the hands of the men in their lives.” If you see your stage Heroines as ‘victims” that too, is not a good foundation to start from. Even stranger, if you then cast traditionally male roles with women—who then (given the demands of the text) act as their male/victimizers would, it’s just plain confusing. As regards to the (at times subtle, at others substantial) ‘Sapphic’ tone O’Connor has infused into the plot, for all his attempts at “woke modifications” one also can’t help but smile wryly in the observation that he has only managed to give his audiences a take on Sondheim as seen through the lens of Howard Stern: Tepid ‘titillation’ for titillations’ sake. Perhaps the biggest challenge O’Connor and company face with their ‘re-conception’ though, is that it runs in direct opposition to what the whole show is about in the first place! Bergman formulated his “Smiles Of A Summer Night” as a comedy of manners, which here instead, becomes a ‘comedy of genders’—not so much about the characters and their misadventures, but instead, more about WHO is playing them. What was intended from its inception to be an absurdist look at heterosexual relationships at the height of the “Belle Epoch” and the age-old ‘battle of the sexes”, just comes off as disjointed or incoherent. At best it is a mixed bag–occasionally brilliantly daring; at others it’s more of an impediment. Sad, because he has the makings of an honest-to-goodness “stand out” production. In fact, if anything, these directorial peculiarities only stand to remind us how strong and well-crafted the material is.
With this acknowledged, let’s focus on the copious positives this production boasts instead–and there most definitely IS a lot of good to be said. On opening night, O’Connor was joined by the Producer to take the stage beforehand to apprise those in attendance about a little bit of this particular production’s ‘history’: “Theater IS Essential” they reminded us; “In times of strife, people have always turned to the arts. It is truly a special and unique honor to perform this show several months after the passing of its composer.” They then revealed that this production has been in the works for two solid years—having been suddenly pre-empted a week before everything closed down. Indeed, it was initially slated to open on January 22nd of this year, but was wisely held back two weeks while the effects of the latest Omicron Variant played out. (Even now, “The Greenway Court Theatre’ requires all those attending to furnish proof of Covid vaccinations and boosters, along with requiring mask to be worn at all times when inside the theater.)
At the very core of all the action is Catherine Wadkins as “The One and Only” “Desiree Armfeldt”, bestowing upon us a dignified, unpretentious woman–self-assured but not as scheming as has been too often depicted in previous incarnations. For a “Leading Lady” in a musical (and one who is given one of the musical theater’s most time-honored anthems,) “Desiree” doesn’t really sing all that much. Nonetheless, Ms. Wadkins dramatically launches the festivities in high style with her part in “The Glamorous Life” (and melodically speaking, here too, the contribution by the all-female chorus is impeccable—supplying some dynamic harmony, most specifically in the song’s ride-out.) Subsequently in the Second Act, she hits all the right notes—literally and figuratively–with the score’s iconic “Send In the Clowns”, categorically the most famous song from the score (and Sondheim’s biggest ‘cross-over’ hit.) Taking its title from a theatrical practice dating back to the Elizabethan stage that held, whenever a production went wrong, the idea was to ‘distract’ the audience with amusing antics (or essentially “sending in the clowns”,) until the play was again ready to resume. In this instance, after “Fredrik” has rejected the possibility of their being together–seriously and permanently, “Desiree”, uses the song to regain some semblance of equilibrium (–or to “cover” having had her romantic plans go miserably awry.) On this occasion, Ms. Wadkins clearly ‘gets’ what this song is all about and just how to play it, and it is delightfully evident.
As her hapless “Ex-Lover”, “Fredrik Egerman” (and one of only two male cast-members,) Peyton Crim also does a creditable job as both Actor and Singer. Investing the on-stage happenings with an enviably strong, operatic voice, he puts it to brilliant use in the service of his introductory number “Now”, before scoring again when taking the lead in “You Must Meet My Wife” (—embellished with some rich and resonant violin underscoring that ‘sweetens’ what is basically a light-hearted intermezzo.) Portraying Desiree’s “Dragoon”, “Count Carl-Magnus Malcom” (whom she describes as “Very handsome—and very married, with the vanity of a Peacock and the brains of a pea”,) Christopher Robert Smith interjects more much-needed testosterone energy, as well as proving he too is a vocal force to be reckoned with. In addition to his strong influence on the first act closer “A Weekend In The Country”, he has two more opportunities to impress—and impress he does—starting with his sung soliloquy, “In Praise Of Women”; then again after intermission, when Smith and Crim engage in a pivotal ‘dueling duet’ of words (the only one these male players share,) called “It Would’ve Been Wonderful”, staged as a pair of ‘asides” that has the two pondering their relationships with “Desiree” even as they battle it out (figuratively) with a game of Croquet.
Meanwhile, handily shouldering the comedic ‘weight’ of the goings-on is Sarah Wolter as “Count Malcom’s” tired-but-tractable, always genteel wife, “Countess Charlotte Malcom”. Wolter has exemplary comic delivery, which she puts to terrific use dispensing the biggest (if most sardonic,) laughs—and doing so stunningly! She also is responsible for another of the score’s more memorable inclusions, “Every Day A Little Death”: a bittersweet rumination on the tyrannies of marriage made all the more unbearable when genuine love is involved (such as hers forlornly is!) She also shines in the big closing Act One group undertaking, “A Weekend In The Country”. At the same time, Zoe Bright’s overall approach to Desiree’s’ mother “Madame Armfelt” is pleasantly less a stately and imposing figure and more of a lovingly cultured one (think less Hermione Gingold, who created the role on Broadway and in London, and more Hermione Baddeley–best known to many as the endearing house-maid in “Mary Poppins”.) Even better, she actually SINGS “Madame Armfeldt’s” solo descant, ‘Liaisons” through which we learn exactly how she “acquired a Chateau extravagantly over-staffed”. Happily, Ms. Bright makes this song and her rendition entirely her own and her effort is sure to be appreciated (–not least of by whom those who know the number and its tradition of simply being feebly spoken to music.) As her Granddaughter “Fredrika Armfeldt” (as a child) Emma Rose likewise brings a refreshing ‘relaxed’ believability to her characterization. Instead of appearing like she’s “acting” her role, Miss Rose seems content to simply–and authentically–‘behave’ in it, and its enchanting to witness. She too plays a big part in “introducing” the audience to her mother, ‘The Actress’ via her opening stanzas of “The Glamourous Life”. Not to be overlooked either is Alexa Rosengous who herself furnishes a ‘Gold Medal’ performance as “Petra”, the Egerman’s more ‘worldly’ “Domestic”. Empowered with the laudable ability to interpret a song with absolute potency, she validates this with her 11 O’Clock dazzler, “I Will Marry The Miller’s Son”. Expertly taking its tricky lyrics and numerous tongue-twisting stanzas, in stride, she gives each a brisk, crisp (and thoroughly awesome) elucidation (Count this one decidedly worth waiting for later in the proceedings!)
Another ‘challenge’ to cross-gender/“non-binary” casting is that those portraying a different-gendered character don’t always meet the requirements of the role—physically or emotionally. This frustratingly, is the case with several of the dramatis-personae presented. Take for example Amanda Kruger who makes for a too-petite “Henrik Egerman”. Yes, Kruger plays a boy very effectively–however, given such a diminutive stature and innate delicacy, “Henrik” comes off as more of a pre-pubescent one and simply too young. This jeopardizes the plausibility that “he” (–written as a repressed 19-year-old seminary student who brashly desires to be “a part of God’s Army”,) is experiencing inner, hormone-fueled turmoil, while secretly battling his stifled attraction to his teenaged stepmother. This also makes the later scenes of his and “Anne’s” romantic ‘discovery’ of each other …well, frankly a bit hard to watch. Kruger also lacks the needed passion and fury the portrayal requires This is, all things considered, a lad who finds misery and contempt in nearly everything, only taking joy in his ‘profound” cello playing. (At one point Henrik’s father observes of his ‘son’: “I’m afraid being young in itself is a trifle ridiculous; good has to be so good, bad so bad; such superlatives!”) Inasmuch as “Henrik” is supposed to be a steadfastly gloomy, dour presence lowering over much of the intrigues, what we get in its place is a “Presence-Lite”.
By the same token, Ty Deran doesn’t fare much better conferring on us a rather large, masculine “Anne Egerman”— towering over ‘her’ youthful stepson. Intended to be a blithesome, naïve, teenaged girl thrust into a marriage she wasn’t ready for, “Anne” should be all giddiness and nervous energy as she perceives and discovers the world around her—good or bad; what we’re met with instead is a “burlesque” of that, lacking any hint of ‘girlhood’ let alone innocence. (Ironically, it would be interesting to see how the production would fare were Deran and Kruger to switch roles.) All this said, it must also be stressed that it’s obvious that neither performer is without their share of talent—considerably so even, just not necessarily in these roles. Case-in-point: Deran does have a distinctive faculty for singing in the upper-falsetto range. This grants a fun and appealing tonality to the various songs/verses “Anne” is assigned, such as with “Soon”–“Anne’s” solo part in what will quickly become a trio, giving “her” verses the right tinge of “coloratura”. Where “she/they” undeniably triumphs though, is as the production’s Choreographer. It’s interesting to note that Sondheim and Wheeler’s preliminary concept was to stage most (if not all) of the numbers as Waltzes incorporating music that was (mostly) written in ¾ time. By contrast–and to Deran’s credit–is the ingenious way several numbers (–frequently one’s you’d least expect–) have been fortified and elevated with some very clever dance phrases or rhythmic steps, such as with the sprightly center-stage ‘round-de-lay’ in the midst of “Remember”, or the jaunty Second Act Opener, “The Sun Won’t Set” sung by the older “Fredrika” and her four servants. Combined, both the adroit moves and the words that accompany them make this latter endeavor a bona-fide highlight of the entire piece.
Then there’s the “Quintet”—this time ‘re-envisioned’ to now comprise four ladies: Meredith Pyle as “Mrs. Lindquist”, Dekontee Tucrkile as “Mrs. Erlanson”; Andrea Lara as “Mrs. Anderssen” and Roni Paige as “Mrs. Segstrom” who all join Tal Fox as the ‘grown-up’ “Fredrika”. Sometimes they appear to be her servants, sometimes as well-dressed ladies of Swedish society. When they get together, they ALL furnish us with some incredible—at times ‘symphonic’–group harmonies and countermelodies. This they make clear right from the start with the ‘sung’ overture wherein one by one they take to the stage before being joined by the rest of the cast for the ethereal “Night Waltz”. Moreover, in Act Two, Ms Fox’s “Adult Fredrika’ sort of becomes the scene-setter, hovering in and out between scenes as Bergman’s titular “Summer Night” progresses whilst the various relationships are played out.
Viewed from a strictly ‘technical’ point of view, O’Connor’s direction does make excellent use of “The Greenway Court Theatre’s” more intimate space, keeping his pacing lively overall, while utilizing each angle of the thrust-stage for many of the performer’s entrances and exits. He also exhibits a superior capacity for staging multiple times and locations as they’re supposedly unfolding concurrently—especially toward the show’s climax as “Fredrika” continues her reminiscences. This ‘other worldly’ effect is decisively augmented by Donny Jackson’s Lighting Designs. Most of what occurs in the concluding half takes place on a mid-summer night after all, and he also uses subdued illumination during the prologue to signify the quietude of Madame Armfeldt’s now (mostly) abandoned estate, before painting the stage with a goldish hue once returning to the more vital and vibrant “past”. Then again, what is a great performance without a great performance ‘space’?
This comes courtesy of Ek Dagenfield, whose smart thrust-set is a compact marvel of utility and spatial economy, while still possessing enough touches here and there to adequately suggest the times and places this tale is enfolding. What’s more, it’s true ingenuity lies in it basically being a minimalist set without appearing to be minimalist. (he’s even integrated a nifty “grass lawn” at its very center!) Such scenic resourcefulness is proof positive that a grand operetta such as “A Little Night Music” can effectively be staged in a smaller, cozier space like “The Greenway Court Theatre”. Notable innovation is also furnished by Mia Glenn-Schuster’s pristine Sound Design, featuring, among other things, woodland sounds (like birds chirping) played softly in the background throughout. Comparably ovation-worthy are Michael Mullen’s exquisite costumes, which are always spot-on and could themselves easily be reason enough to recommend this show in the resoundingly positive! They include “Desiree’s” flowing white shift-gown with traces of “shocking” red, or “Anne’s” frilly pink-floral number with matching strings of pearls (expect to see lots of frills and lace actually,) or the Count’s ‘severe’ black regimental uniform punctuated with gold brocade and shoulder epaulets. These are in perfect complement to Chadd McMillan’s Wig Designs (for the feminine characters,) many coiffured in vintage up-swept “Gibson Girl” fashion, helping to recall the elan and quiet elegance of the turn-of-the-20th-century. Musical Director Anthony Zediker also does journeyman work, (perched high above the back of the stage and off to the side,) serving double-duty as both the Conductor of the five-piece band (with Xenia Deviatkina-Loh on first Violin, Alice Townsend on Second Violin, Angie Zheng on Viola and Matthew Tong on Cello,) while he takes charge of the piano.
Traditional modes of storytelling can seldom be faulted; but theater at its most transcendent can also challenge us. While it could be contended that this is a phantastic experiment that doesn’t always work, it could similarly be said that this one is ideal for those theatergoers who prefer more non-traditional retellings of classic musicals and shows. Either way, in the final analysis (and despite any passing distractions or quirks in casting,) this new production offers fine music–exceptionally conveyed, and a fast-paced, smartly satirical narrative carried out by an accomplished company of actors. So if these are “Sweet Imbecilities”, let us hope this lunacy IS much more than a trend! “A Little Night Music” performs at the “Greenway Court Theatre” on the campus of Fairfax Highschool located at 544 N. Fairfax Avenue, in Los Angeles, California. Having “officially” opened on Friday, February 4th, it is slated to run through Sunday, March 13th, 2022. Performances are Friday and Saturday evening’s at 8:00 PM and Sunday evenings at 7:00 PM. Tickets may be obtained online at bit.ly/NightMusic2022 or by phone at (323) 673-0544. (Free parking is available in the lot adjacent to the theater.)
Production Stills By Bryan Carpender, Courtesy of Ken Werther At Ken Werther Publicity (www.kenwerther.com) and “Knot Free Productions” in association with “Greenway Arts Alliance & Theatre Planners”; Special Thanks To Ryan O’Connor, Anthony Zediker, Ty Deran, Ken Werther, Jarod Millsap And To The Cast & Crew Of “Greenway Court Theatre’s” 2022 Production Of “A Little Night Music” For Making This Story Possible.