AISLE SAY San Francisco


Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Directed by Dennis Lickteig
Presented by Hillbarn Theatre
1285 E. Hillsdale Blvd., Foster City, CA / (650) 349-6411

Reviewed by Judy Richter

"Send in the Clowns," the best known song from "A Little Night Music," has been interpreted by many popular singers, including Judy Collins and Barbra Streisand. To truly understand its meaning, however, one needs to hear and see it in context -- Stephen Sondheim's 1973, Tony-winning musical, which is set in Sweden in the early 20th century.

For now, there's no better place than the Hillbarn Theatre production. Without becoming maudlin, Equity performer Lee Ann Payne as actress Desirée Armfeldt makes the song's poignancy abundantly clear and quite touching. She sings it to the show's co-star, Cameron Weston as Fredrik Egerman, a lawyer whom she hadn't seen in the 14 years since their romantic interlude ended. In the meantime, she has continued her career, touring from town to town, while he has recently married 18-year-old Anne (Nicolette Norgaard). While he loves Anne, he's frustrated that she has not allowed their marriage to be consummated. He also has an 18-year-old son, the morose Henrik (Jack Mosbacher), who's studying to become a minister and secretly loves Anne.

Fredrik and Desirée get together again one night, but they're interrupted by the arrival of her hot-tempered lover, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (William Giammona), who's married to Charlotte (Alicia Teeter). Everything gets sorted out in the second act, when everyone converges for a weekend at the country home of Desirée's mother, Madame Leonora Armfeldt (Christine Macomber), who's caring for Desirée's young daughter, Fredrika (Leah Kalish).

Composer-lyricist Sondheim and his librettist, Hugh Wheeler, based the plot on Swedish director Ingmar Bergman's 1955 film, "Smiles of a Summer Night." The title is a literal translation of Mozart's "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik." Most of the songs are written in waltz tempo, and several scenes are introduced by a chorus of three women and two men called the Liebeslieder Singers, a nod to an 1852 waltz by Johann Strauss II.

Director Dennis Lickteig has cast this production with performers who create believable characters. Not all of them are so pitch-perfect vocally, but they interpret their songs well, thanks to musical director Greg Sudmeier, who directs the fine backstage orchestra.

Besides Payne and Weston as Desirée and Fredrik, the show's standout performers include Mosbacher as young Henrik, Giammona as the count, Teeter as his wife and Macomber as Madame Armfeldt. Noteworthy in a minor role is Sarah Griner as Petra, the Egermans' maid.

Shannon Maxham designed the elegant costumes, while Robert Broadfoot designed the simple yet flexible set. Lighting is by Don Coluzzi, who must recreate Sweden's long summer twilights. Choreography is by Jayne Zaban, and sound is by Jon Hayward.

"A Little Night Music,' like any Sondheim show, is challenging for any company because of its complex music and lyrics, but Hillbarn meets those challenges successfully in this fine production.

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