It takes a lot of drive and talent to direct a show with a large cast involving an enormous set and make it all seem effortless. The challenge is even greater when the show is a musical by the great Stephen Sondheim. It’s for these reasons that Short North Stage is fortunate to have Michael Licata on hand to guide their production of A Little Night Music, a confection high in style and grace, and the opening show of their new season.
A Little Night Music, with a score by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, premiered on Broadway in 1973, won six Tony Awards (including Best Musical, Best Score, and Best Book), ran for a year and a half, was adapted into a rather poor 1977 film, and has gone on to become one of Sondheim’s most beloved and accessible works. Based on Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), A Little Night Music is about middle aged widower Frederik Egerman and his much younger wife, Anne; his son from his previous marriage, Henrik; Petra, the Egermans’ saucy maid; Desiree Armfeldt, a successful touring actress and Frederik’s former mistress; Desiree’s daughter Fredrika; Desiree’s mother, Madame Armfeldt; Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, Desiree’s current boyfriend; and Charlotte Malcolm, the count’s wife who wants to take her husband back from Desiree. All of these people find themselves at Madame Armfeldt’s estate one weekend where relationships are rekindled while others are broken. It is a sweetly romantic comedy from which came the song “Send in the Clowns,” arguably Sondheim’s most commercial hit, though it also includes such penetrating compositions as “A Weekend in the Country,” “Every Day a Little Death,” and “The Miller’s Son.”
You know you’re seeing something special when you can recognize so many faces from other shows around Columbus playing small or mute roles in this production when they are usually leads (I’m looking at you Nick Hardin, Doug Joseph, Chris Rusen, and Kristen Basore). Everyone on stage here is perfectly cast and on their A game; the moment that Jennifer Barnaba (Anne) is seen next to her on-stage husband, Mark A. Harmon (Frederik), I thought, “She’s too young for him,” and that’s one of the points of the story! The cast seems to enjoy grandly prancing around the elegant set by Ray Zupp, delicately designed with patterns and pieces evocative of a more tasteful period. The orchestra sounds lush and full, firmly conducted by musical director and orchestrator Lloyd Butler; the players are behind a screen on stage, their silhouettes comfortingly visible in the background.
Mark A. Harmon (Frederik) and Marya Spring (Desiree) have sparkling chemistry as the lovers who rekindle their romance, and they both have commanding stage presence. The play has many other delightful characters, but it is the moments with Mr. Harmon and Ms. Spring that I treasure and of which I found myself wanting to see more.
Linda Dorff (Madame Armfeldt) is wry and direct in her wheelchair-bound role, and her rendition of “Liasons” is beguiling as she keeps a firm grasp on her emotions, releasing her grip every so slightly in a few moments; it’s a subtle shift but highly effective.
Eli Brickey (Petra) all but stops the show with her rousing rendition of “The Miller’s Son,” though every scene in which she appears has a bit more kick than it would’ve otherwise. Her scenes with JJ Parkey (Henrik) bristle with sexual energy. Mr. Parkey plays repressed well, even persevering through the score’s weakest moment (in my opinion, mind you) – his section of the otherwise charming “Now/Later/Soon.”
There is an odd audio anomaly that is worth pointing out; all of the voices, no matter where the actors are on stage, come solely out of a far left speaker. It’s a disconcerting sound problem, especially when the orchestra can be heard so clearly across the stage. I hope this was an issue just with the performance I attended and not a design flaw.
Short North Stage’s A Little Night Music is a very good production of a very good show, and its leisurely pace suits the material, though at around three hours it sometimes feels a bit slow. It’s a real testament to Short North Stage to have some of the biggest talents in the area on their stage all at once. I’ve always found the show itself to be second tier Sondheim (which means it is better than first tier most anyone else), but it’s that rare musical that improves in its second act. There is no shortage of talent or beauty on display in this production, one of the largest and most ambitious I’ve ever seen in Columbus not part of a touring production.
*** out of ****
A Little Night Music continues through to November 1st in the Garden Theatre located at 1187 North High Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://www.shortnorthstage.org/calendar/v/467