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|A CurtainUp Review
A Little Night Music
By Laura Hitchcock
High expectations greeted the Los Angeles Opera's summer choice of Stephen Sondheim's most intricate and melodic creation, A Little Night Music. The lyrics alone are a cross between Oscar Wilde and Gilbert & Sullivan and the characters with all their passions and vanities are the full-fledged creations of Ingmar Bergman in his film Smiles of a Summer Night. It is also the personal favorite of this writer.
Expectations were gloriously met in this production, directed by Scott Ellis and choreographed by Susan Stroman who staged it for New York City Opera first in 1988, then in 2003. Other productions have been performed in opera houses across the country but last night's cast would be hard to beat.
Set on a summer week-end in the country mansion of Madame Armfeldt (Zoe Caldwell) at the request of her actress daughter Desiree (Judith Ivey) so that Desiree could entertain her once and hopefully future lover, lawyer Fredrik Egerman (Victor Garber), the soiree is complicated by the unexpected arrival of Desiree's lover, macho Count Carl-Magnus (Marc Kudisch) and his world-weary but passionately determined wife Charlotte (Michele Pawk). Fredrik brings his teen-age bride Anne (Laura Benanti), his theology student son Henrik (Danny Gurwin) who's in love with Anne and Petra, the maid (Jessica Boevers).
There are lots of happy endings but not before lots of sturm, drang, suffering and such elegant cautionary arias by the inimitable Zoe Caldwell as "Liaisons." Chief among Caldwell's memorable line readings: "Are you addressing ME?" with the "Me" dropped to a bass note instead of raised. Ms. Caldwell alone is worth the price of admission but she's not the only treasure.
Judith Ivey, who first demonstrated her mastery of the concept "wry" in the film "Compromising Positions", makes a warm and sensuous Desiree who's not afraid to add a few more pounds for her lovers to love. Her "Send In The Clowns" predictably brought down the house but, unpredictably, made it as poignantly fresh as if it were written that moment.
Garber's Fredrik is handsome, vain, a little creaky in the knees, and totally recognizable in his besotted fixation on his child bride to "renew his unrenewable youth", as Desiree slyly puts it.
Marc Kudisch as Carl-Magnus reminds us of everything we love and everything we hate about beautiful forceful peacocks and his singing is magnificent as the peacock's tail. Laura Benanti and Danny Gurwin bring strong voices and comic panache to the ingénue roles. The only reservation in this production is "The Miller's Son" sung by Petra (Jessica Boevers). Though she has the vocal equipment for Petra, the rapid lyrics of this wonderful song are too much for Boevers who loses a number of them in the chase. One of the special joys of this piece is the way in which the late Hugh Wheeler's book blends so well with Sondheim's lyrics that they could have been written by one person. (See how hard I work to avoid my least favorite cliché "seamless"") This book makes you want to read more of Wheeler's novels and see his screenplays.
The entire score is exceptional but "Every Day A Little Death", in which Anne and Charlotte lament the leaking of the many-textured joys and sorrows of love into every facet of daily life, is particularly chilling.
Particularly glorious are the operatic voices of The Quintet who act as a chorus and comment on the action. Choreographer Susan Stroman gracefully demonstrates the music's waltz motif and the libretto of alienated lovers by alternating the waltz with steps and patterns in which the actors are distant from each other.
The glowing moon of a summer night is the most obvious but not the least of Michael Anania's stunning set designs illuminated by Kenneth Posner and Jeff Nellis's rich and subtle lighting design. After a summer night like this, dawn comes with a sigh.
Readers might want to check out CurtainUp's review of another production of this work some seasons ago at Barrington Stage in the Berkshires. To read it go here.
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