by Lynn on June 23, 2016

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Avon Theatre, Stratford Festival, Stratford, Ont.

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Directed by Gary Griffin
Musical director, Franklin Brasz
Designed by Debra Hanson
Lighting by Kevin Fraser
Projection Consultant, Brad Peterson
Sound by Peter McBoyle
Cast: Matt Alfano
Gabriel Antonacci
Sean Arbuckle
Ben Carlson
Juan Chioran
Cynthia Dale
Rosemary Dunsmore
Sara Farb
Barbara Fulton
Alexis Gordon
Ayrin Mackie
Yanna McIntosh
Stephen Patterson
Jennifer Rider-Shaw
Kimberly-Ann Truong

An uneven production (dare one say, sloppy) of Stephen Sondheim’s sublime musical, with a director more interested in moving furniture to change scenes than in helping actors desperate for direction, but with performances from Ben Carlson and Yanna McIntosh (among others) that are wonderful.

The Story. Stephen Sondheim’s 1973 musical is suggested by Ingmar Berman’s 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night. A Little Night Music takes place in Sweden at the turn of the last century. Fredrik Egerman, a middle aged lawyer, is trying to please his very young wife, Anne, with theatre tickets to a French comedy starring Désirée Armfeldt. Frederick and Anne have been married for eleven months and have not consummated the marriage because at 18, Anne is timid, afraid of sex, or perhaps sex with Fredrik. Fredrik is frustrated. Years before he married Anne he had an affair with Désirée Armfeldt. Now after the French comedy Fredrik goes to Désirée for solace, even though they haven’t seen each other for at least 14 years.

To complicate matters Fredrik’s nineteen-year-old son Henrik, from a previous marriage, is secretly in love with Anne. And there are further complications: Désirée has a very pompous dragoon as a lover—who in turn is married as well. It’s Sweden. They don’t get enough sunlight. It wrecks havoc on people’s emotions.

The Production. Five formally dressed Lieder Singers set the tone and elegance of the musical and give hints of the stories to come, but the production is marred by over-amplification. What is this penchant for microphoning both the orchestra and the cast then ramping up the sound so that you almost can’t make out the lyrics and the music sounds harsh? It’s Sondheim! If you can’t make out the lyrics and the music the point is wasted. The audience is there to listen. Trust them to do it. Cut the amplification down by half, please!

There is such a sense of clutter and busy stage business in director Gary Griffin’s disappointing production. The cast always seems to be moving and pushing set pieces from one end of the stage to the other, often for no reason or during a scene causing distraction. So many actors need guidance with their intricate characters and the director seems nowhere in attendance except for the ‘look’ of the production and even here there are eye-brow-knitting moments.

In the scene when Fredrik and Anne go the theatre to see Désirée in her play, Fredrik and Anne sit in a box stage right, watching Désirée and two characters do a scene, facing downstage, towards the audience. There is a projection at the back of the set of a multi-tiered, very ornate theatre with plush seats, facing the audience (us). The projection is in the wrong place. It’s backwards if the action of the scene is played downstage towards the audience (us). That sight of the rich theatre is what Désirée and her fellow actors on stage would see as they looked out to their audience. It’s not what we (our audience) should be looking at at the back of the set. Is no one in this production paying attention to this stuff? Does the director really care this little?

Debra Hanson’s set, with its odd smoke stacks configuration and overpowering gate and faux foliage, to quote a line from the musical: “was, to put it mildly, peculiar.” Her costumes, on the other hand, are ravishing, elegant, and fitting the time.

This difficult show requires a cast that is strong in both singing and acting; who know how to find the nuance and detail in Hugh Wheeler’s elegant (that word again) text and Sondheim’s intricate lyrics. Four actors hit the mark in spades. As Fredrik, Ben Carlson goes from strength to strength. Whether he is acting in Shakespeare or singing Sondheim, his acting is true, detailed and heartfelt. As Fredrik, Carlson shows the man’s frustration with a young wife and the longing for a former lover. This is a performance full of patience, wit, pent up emotion and courtliness. And he sings beautifully.

As Désirée, Yanna McIntosh has the sass and boldness of an actress forced to tour the country-side in second-rate productions, but still has the allure and class of an actress that can draw crowds. This Désirée is knowing, ironic, sarcastic and coy. McIntosh’s rendering of “Send in the Clowns” is wonderfully heartbreaking. McIntosh conveys Désirée’s initial yearning and disappointment when singing the song for the first time and her quiet joy when singing the reprise that it will all work out.

Juan Chioran brings out all the pomposity and arrogance of Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm. He has the stature and sneer of a man who believes he deserves everything from all his women. Chioran does it with a haughty flair. You are never in doubt that he has “the vanity of a peacock (and ) the brain of a pea” in Chioran’s performance and he does it beautifully. That also carries over in his commanding singing. This is a character that is a pompous fool and totally mesmerizing because of Chioran’s playing of him.

Madam Armfeldt, Désirée’s mother, is a woman with a colourful past; who counts kings among her former lovers. As played by Rosemary Dunsmore, with an impish hauteur, Madam Armfeldt conveys the exasperation of a woman of class who laments her daughter’s messiness in her own affairs. Madam Armfeldt is watchful, all-knowing, impatient with the shoddiness of the ‘modern’ generation who come calling to her estate. Yet has the most delicious whimsy and wry humour when commenting about it all to her granddaughter. Dunsmore brings all this out with economy and the most riveting stillness.

A Little Night Music demands absolute mastery of all its actor/singers, not just four of them. What of those who are floundering and need a strong director’s hand? They seem to be out of luck here. As Anne Egerman, Alexis Gordon (so wonderful last year as Julie Jordan in Carousel) plays the flightiness and girlishness of Anne but does not go deeper to find the emotional uncertainty.

As Countess Charlotte Malcolm, Cynthia Dale is all surface and superficiality. A bright smile and the hint of a furrowed brow does not begin to plum the depths of Charlotte’s character and her conflicted emotions. While Dale hits all the notes in “Every Day A Little Death” she does not realize the emotional rawness in the song. Charlotte has a nimble wit and keen sense of humour, but again Dale ploughs through lines without seeming to know where the laugh is. Case in point: Carl-Magnus tells Charlotte of going to his mistress Désirée’s for part of his leave. He tells Charlotte of finding Fredrik Egerman there, a lawyer. Charlotte says: “What kind of lawyer? Corporation, maritime, criminal—testamentary?” Writer Hugh Wheeler shows the actress playing Charlotte where there is a pause in the list, namely, that dash. And that sets up the joke that follows the dash, namely, the word “testamentary.” Dale doesn’t pause to set up the laugh. And she mispronounces “testamentary,” which doesn’t help either. The stress in on the first syllable and not on the last. Is there nobody to help her, such as the director?

Can somebody please tell Matt Alfano who plays Frid, that Frid is a servant in Sweden at the turn of the 20th century and not someone from a borough of New York City in 2016, who seems fresh from A Chorus Line?

Sara Farb is flirty and sexually charged as Petra, a servant in the Egerman household. She knows how to take advantage of any opportunity that passes by. She belts out “The Miller’s Son” but one wishes it was less an obvious effort of a bravura performance to bite out all those challenging lyrics, and a more varied exploration of the depths of that stunning song.

Comment. Stephen Sondheim writes of the wounded heart, love in all its guises and the folly of people ruled by their emotions like no other living composer for the musical theatre. A Little Night Music is a musical as delicate as a feather on the breeze but with heightened emotions. Characters are fraught, conflicted and often emotionally fragile. It requires a delicate, but firm, directorial hand to realize the subtleties in the piece. Unfortunately it doesn’t have that in Gary Griffin. Actors desperate for guidance don’t seem to get it; a note to ‘bring the performance down a lot’ doesn’t seem to have been given; how to play a part in the time period of the musical and helping an actor find the humour and the laugh in so many lines does not seem to be important in his direction. One also wonders if musical director, Franklin Brasz helped any of the singers who needed guidance to find out what their songs meant.

I am grateful for Ben Carlson, Yanna McIntosh, Juan Chioran and Rosemary Dunsmore for giving performances that are beautifully rendered with all the nuance and shading that is necessary in realizing this difficult, elegant musical. But for the rest, sadly this production of A Little Night Music is a disappointment.

The Stratford Festival Presents:

Opened: June 21, 2016.
Closes: October 23, 2016.
Cast: 18; 7, 11 women
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, approx.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 saxon June 26, 2016 at 12:11 pm

Lynn Slotkin writes: “[Ms. Dale] mispronounces ‘testamentary,’ which doesn’t help either. The stress in on the first syllable and not on the last.”

I can’t go back and check the performance, but I’m fairly certain she did not pronounce it “testamentar-EE.” Perhaps she pronounced it “testamen-TAR-y” rather than the critic’s preferred “TES-tamentary.” But the critic clearly complains about the “last” syllable of the word. Is there nobody to help her, such as a proofreader? Is no one on this blog paying attention to this stuff? Does the critic really care this little?


2 Amanda Thripp June 27, 2016 at 12:46 pm

You’d think that the production team burned down Ms. Slotkin’s house, based on the criticism levied in this review.

I particularly enjoyed the idea that “no one in this production [is] paying attention to this stuff.”, since the moment she calls out as being confusing I actually found rather easy to digest and fun.

I found it an enjoyable and good production of a good Sondheim musical (and in particular i found the music and singing to be particularly moving).

I guess that you can’t please everyone but this review seems more mean spirited than critucal.


3 Catherine Marjoribanks July 9, 2016 at 12:58 pm

My daughter and I saw this production last night, and today I went looking for reviews to see if we were alone in feeling that there were big problems with the show. I should say upfront that we are pretty big Sondheim nerds, and this is one of our favourite shows. We saw A Little Night Music in the 2008 Shaw Festival production, and the recent Broadway revival (carefully waiting out Catherine Zeta-Jones in favour of seeing it with Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch). So, our expectations were pretty high. But we felt the lack of a coherent directorial vision (was this a modern setting or a period piece? Smokestacks? The giant painted backdrop featuring two men in an embrace? What were they going for here?). The costumes were sometimes lovely, but why have Charlotte advise Anne to “dress in white” for the “weekend in the country” to show up Desiree’s age, and then have literally everyone dress in white for those scenes?

And we agreed that the actors seemed to have been left twisting in the wind in terms of understanding their characters — you could group them in terms of whether they were playing in a farce or in a more nuanced emotional drama, but they weren’t all in the same show. Unfortunately, I can’t agree that Yanna McIntosh was effective as Desiree — I felt she was mugging and smirking when she might have been acting. Overall, I feel she did not establish her power in the story as an object of desire — I’ll blame the director largely for that one. And I had problems with her “Send In the Clowns” that are way too nerdy to get into here.

Loved the performances of Frederik, Anne, Henrik, Charlotte, and Madame Armfeldt. I enjoyed Sara Farb’s performance of “The Miller’s Son,” but it did nothing to help what I think of as this show’s “Petra Problem” — why does such an essentially marginal character, out of nowhere, get such a powerful, fabulous song, only to disappear again? Frid — my daughter’s reaction was that someone should tell him he’s not in “Jersey Boys,” so I think we were on the same page about that one! As you say, where was the musical director to help with these issues?

In short, we think you’re pretty much right on the money with this review. Hats off to the actors who gave it all their talent and effort. And I will never regret spending time with that gorgeous music. But overall, it was an opportunity squandered.


4 Shosh July 10, 2016 at 12:22 pm

Enjoyed the show; however, it would be nice to see the right actors playing the obvious parts. Dale might have transgressed less as Desiree, and Farb as Anne. After Opera Singer Regina Resnik how can anyone else do grandmama’s part justice.


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