AISLE SAY Berkshires & Environs


Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Book by Hugh Wheeler
Directed by Ethan Heard
Starring Kate Baldwin, Gregg Edelman, Penny Fuller,
Maureen O’Flynn and Graham Rowat

Berkshire Theatre Group/Colonial Theatre (Pittsfield) until July 19

Reviewed by Joel Greenberg


A Little Night Music, the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film, Smiles of a Summer Night, is this season’s major attraction at the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Colonial Theatre. Since its Broadway premiere in 1973, the operetta-inspired show has been produced in theatres and opera houses worldwide. The 1977 film adaptation that starred Elizabeth Taylor is best forgotten. (It was largely forgotten minutes after its initial release.) The current production, running at the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield MA until July 19, is very well sung. There are rather sharp distinctions between the acting skills of this company and the direction, apart from the music, lacks tension and precision.


Hugh Wheeler’s carefully crafted script is a kaleidoscopic vision of the frailties of love. The comedy of manners, referred to as a farce in the score’s most famous song, Send in the Clowns, observes the relationships in an upper middle-class world of privilege and narcissism. Lovers, would-be lovers and unapologetic hedonists fool themselves into believing that they can give and accept love. It is left to the eldest of the group, Madame Armfeldt (Penny Fuller), to provide the truth. Age, it seems, Knows All.


And the work itself, coming from the mind and heart of Sondheim, demands an ensemble of first-rate musicians and actors who can negotiate their way through his complex structures and adult themes. A Little Night Music was created during the 70’s, the decade during which Sondheim’s partner, Harold Prince, helped to define a new way to think of, and produce, musical theatre. Their working relationship had begun in the late 1950’s, when Prince co-produced West Side Story, but by the late 1960’s, when Prince had added the credit of director to his resume, they were creative partners through-and-through. Company, the landmark show that altered the structural face of the musical, was their initial project together. Follies, a cult favourite that repelled many critics in 1971, followed. Night Music restored the team’s commercial credibility.  Since then, Night Music has entered the pantheon of Musical Theatre.


The central challenge in any production of this work is how to handle, i.e., solve, the quintet of singers who are enlisted as a Scandinavian Chorus. They see everything with an objective detachment. They’re here, they’re there and, in this production, they’re always available to shift scenery. But the concept, as written and imagined, is far less effective than its reality, especially when, in the second act, they refuse to stop singing echoes of ideas already firmly established for the audience. I recall reading that in the original production the concept could never be satisfactorily resolved, but neither could the quintet be dispensed with, so tightly had they been woven into the structure. That is a riddle for any director taking on this work.


Ethan Heard, the director here, has tried a new approach. The singers are all young, far too inexperienced to know whereof they comment, but that’s accepted at the outset. They are also dressed in contemporary clothing that separates them entirely from the period clothing worn by the story’s characters. And so they are removed from the goings-on by virtue of their age and their historical context. How well does this work? For me, not especially well because the tone set at the top of the show, when they enter separately from the orchestra pit, the audience, the stage, etc., and do vocal warm-ups as they launch into the sung overture, establishes a false spontaneity that is at odds with everything that unfolds thereafter. The more formal attire of the women does not complement the casual dress of the men. and this uncomfortable introduction is made the worse when the full company enters and engages in “Night Waltz”, an extended dance that aims to establish the relationships and conflicts that will comprise the evening ahead. At least, that’s what I think it aims to achieve. The choreography (Alex Sanchez) is cramped on the Colonial Theatre stage and the ideas not fully explored. And adding to the confusion is the intersection of the contemporary quintet with the historical characters. I have seen several previous productions and the quintet has always been problematic, though this is the first time I’ve seen a bold choice made about how to address their presence and purpose.


The BTG production boasts a company that sings the score with passion and clarity and it has a modest orchestra that plays well beyond its limited number. The staging of most musical numbers is intelligent in allowing actors to be fairly stationary so that the beauty of the music and the dexterity of the lyrics are on full display and not obscured by unnecessary movement. In the world of Sondheim, so much of the action is embedded in the ideas that he explores, both musically and lyrically. It is a great pleasure to be allowed to take them in. The only number that falls short is “The Miller’s Son”. What begins as a reflective soliloquy too soon becomes a predictable musical theatre performance with the actor (Monique Barbee) playing right to the house, crisscrossing the stage as she does so. The character of Petra, the maid, vanishes as the actor gestures and points to no effect. The play’s final song, a sour meditation on the hopelessness of a class-based society, dissipates. It should also be noted that this is the single example of musical direction that is at odds with the tone and purpose of the score, for the song is not about showing off a singer’s belt range as much as it is hearing the play’s solitary voice of any but the over-privileged.


Performances range from the precise and crystalline - Gregg Edelman, Kate Baldwin, Graham Rowat, Matt Dengler and Penny Fuller (though why Madame Armfeldt stands during her song is mysterious and unexplained and her final exit is just silly) – to the well intended – Monique Barbee, Phillipa Soo. Maureen O’Flynn, as Desiree Armfeldt, sings her eleventh hour song with warmth and stirring simplicity. However, she lacks the hauteur essential to match her mother’s style and wit, and that creates an unfortunate vacuum in the chemistry of the ensemble.


BTG continues to produce bold and big, and for this their audience is grateful. They are, like other companies in the Berkshires, bringing plays, musicals and the artists who inhabit them, to enliven and enrich the community. There is nothing to compare with such passionate dedication.

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