Tuesday, May 16, 2023

A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler (Pasadena Playhouse 2023)

Now that Stephen Sondheim has passed, there has been a bit of a revival of his less-performed works. My wife and I enjoyed a local production of Sunday in the Park with George recently, and she caught a gender-swapped version of Company last summer in New York. Going further back, we have seen local productions of Assassins and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, while my wife also saw Into the Woods, Follies, and Sweeney Todd


I do not recall that A Little Night Music had been done locally, ever, and neither of us had seen ads for it anywhere else. Despite great commercial success when it came out in 1973, it seems to have faded in popularity. Maybe this is because of its more conventional happy ending. Or perhaps, as my wife pointed out, it really is best done with a real orchestra, and is demanding on the actors for voice and dancing. Whatever the case, we could not pass up the chance to see a top-shelf professional version of it, even if it meant Stacking a very late night onto an already vigorous weekend vacation. Work hard, play hard…


The Pasadena Playhouse is both a historically significant building, and a well-respected professional theater. We had never seen a show there, but probably will be planning to return in the future. 

 (Publicity Photo)

This show was, quite simply, amazing. A real orchestra backstage (we got to see them briefly at the entr'acte and at the end), an all-star stage cast that was excellent from top to bottom, and the delight that a smaller venue brings to live theater. 


The musical itself is based on, of all things, an Ingmar Bergman film, which explains its Swedish setting and characters. One might call it a love hexagon - there are three main couples with a complex set of relationships - or one might even expand it to an octagon, given the fourth pairing of the maid, Petra, and the manservant, Frid. 


So, the widowed lawyer, Fredrik, has recently married Anne, half his age (and about the age of Fredrik’s son, Henrik), but she is repulsed by him, and remains a virgin nearly a year later. Henrik is aiming for the ministry, but has the hots for Anne. But, since he can’t have her, he allows himself to be seduced by the worldly and horny Petra. 


Meanwhile, Fredrik and Anne go to see the famous touring actress Desiree, who Fredrik had an affair with years ago. They are still in love, even though Desiree dumped him. Desiree is currently the paramour of Count Carl-Magnus, a blustering dragoon. Carl-Magnus is married to Charlotte, an old friend of Anne’s. Carl-Magnus rubs his affairs in the face of his wife, and is pretty much a dick all around. 


So, got that? Fredrik, Anne, Henrik, Carl-Magnus, Charlotte, Desiree, Petra, and Frid. 


And then there are the members of the other generations: Madame Armfeldt, Desiree’s mother, a former courtesan who has slept with royalty - she gets a hilarious scene where she describes her past lovers - and what she got from them in return. Finally, there is Fredrika - Desiree’s daughter (a son in the original film), and the name is not a coincidence. 


Finally, there is a quintet of voices who serve as the chorus, commenting on the action, and serving up witty observations about male-female relationships. 


After the night at the theater, Fredrik sneaks out to see Desiree. Their tryst is interrupted by Carl-Magnus, who tells Charlotte to tell Anne of the infidelity. Meanwhile, Desiree convinces her mother to invite Fredrik and his entire family to the estate for the Midsummer Night celebration. But then Carl-Magnus and Charlotte decide to crash the party and…well, hilarity ensues. 


I won’t discuss the plot any further than that, other than to mention that there are a LOT of references to Ibsen and Chekhov in the play, including a loaded gun that has to be used, because Chekhov. 


The score is delicious - rather than the pop sounds that Sondheim often used, this one is pure orchestra, no rhythm section. Nearly all of the music is in waltz ¾ time, and endless fete of night music. Despite the title (drawn from Mozart’s most famous string serenade), the music is from a later era. While obviously the golden age grand waltzes of Johann Strauss Jr. can be heard, these lean more toward Ravel in harmony, and Richard Strauss - because of Die Rosenkavalier, another silly rom-com with partner swapping. (A bit of research indicates that Sondheim put a few brief quotes from that opera in the music, as well as some bits from Ravel’s Valses.) 


The vocal parts are quite demanding in terms of range and technical skill. Because of the operatic writing (it really is an operetta, not a true musical), the singers have to carry everything from the melody line to what is essentially important dialogue. There are the usual duets, but also rather complex polyphonic ensemble numbers. 


I should also mention that the whole thing is packed with witty jokes, razor-sharp satire, and endless double meanings. I mean, laugh out loud funny throughout. 


I’ll say a word about the cast. There were really no weak parts anywhere. Everyone was good. And by good, I mean excellent. This was a cast of true professionals doing what they do best. However, let me give particular call outs to a trio of women who particularly owned the scenes they were in. First, Makara Gamble as young Fredrika - it isn’t often you see a tween who can sing and act that well. Keep an eye on her in the future. Second, Jodi Long as Madam Armfeldt. Like most of the actors in this production, she has a long list of stage and screen roles. She played this role as somewhere between an ice queen and a benevolent (if intimidating) grandmother, and you could feel her stage presence throughout. 


And finally, Merle Dandridge, recently of The Last of Us (Marlene), as Desiree. From the first we see of her, it is clear why men cannot resist her. And it isn’t primarily sex appeal, although there is that. She just has that certain something - is it confidence? is it ability to turn on her personality at will? is it that she knows who she is and won’t apologize? - whatever it is, she has it, and you cannot keep your eyes off of her. 


Because of the original casting back in the day, Sondheim wrote Desiree’s part as less vocally demanding than the others. Which meant in this case that Dandridge had a bit less to work with as far as virtuosity. Instead, she got to make the signature song from this musical, “Send in the Clowns,” into a masterpiece of pathos and defeat. After it ended, I thought Oh My God. It was that good. So understated, never maudlin, but absolutely devastating. All that bravado, and she feels failure so deep it nearly kills her. I would have paid the ticket price just for that song. 


[It isn’t the same as with the full orchestra, and in the context of the play, but her stand-alone performance is pretty badass too.] 


This was a thoroughly enjoyable evening, and a truly delightful musical. I’m glad we were able to make it. It runs through the end of the month, so if you are a local(ish) sort, go get a ticket and enjoy. 


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