A SONDHEIM FAVORITE IN THE BERKSHIRES: A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC
Yet another production of Stephen Sondheim’s A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC comes to the Berkshires. I can recall three here in the last twenty years, in addition to a Broadway revival, multiple regional productions and concert versions, since its original New York run in 1973, which I saw as college student. Barrington Stage Company’s new, faithful production distinguishes itself with near perfect vocal casting to match one of Sondheim’s most perfected scores.
Looking back at the Sondheim canon, the bittersweet that characterizes his work, presents sweeter rather than bitter in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. This, the most romantic of his work, with a waltz-time score, is based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film “Smiles of a Summer Night”, set in Sweden around 1900. The book by Hugh Wheeler, who also wrote “Sweeney Todd”, is more bookish (i.e more spoken dialogue) than most of the musicals that Sondheim later composed.
Skipping story summary (because it's so well known), let’s get right to performances and songs because they are so hand-in-glove on the Pittsfield stage. The show’s best known song (and Sondheim’s only pop chart hit by dint of it being covered by Judy Collins) “Send in the Clowns” is susceptible to cliched, often treacly interpretation. In the hands of Broadway pro Emily Skinner (“The Cher Show”, “SIde Show, etc) who plays theater diva Desiree Armfeldt, the classic gets one of the most original and gutsy vocal interpretations I've ever heard. Jason Danieley as frustrated middle-aged lawyer Frederick Egerman, Desiree’s former lover, is vocally as good as any Frederick I’ve seen, bringing exceptional lyrical clarity to the role, Soprano Sabina Collazo, as Frederik’s much-younger wife (and virgin) Anne, has the toughest role to play, but shines in “Soon”, the concluding piece in the exhilarating trio “Now”, “Later”, “Soon”.
Baritone Cooper Grodin, Desiree’s macho but dim dragoon lover, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, nails “In Praise of Women” and is as splendid as Danieley in their duet “It Would Have Been Wonderful”. Noah Wolf as clergy student Henrik Egremont performs “Later” as good as any production I’ve seen.
Sophie Mings as maid Petra soars with the 11 o’clock number “The Miller’s Son”. Veteran actor Mary Beth Peil is magnificent as Madame Armfeldt with one of Sondheim’s most bittersweet songs “Liaisons” (and she’s as good as Hermoine Gingold in the original Broadway cast and , Margaret “the wicked witch of the west” Hamilton in the first national touring company.
Costumes by the versatile Sara Jean Tosetti are delightfully character-specific. The set decoration by Yoon Bae is stylized Art-Nouveau . The lighting design by BSC associate artist David Lander impeccably suggests settings where “the sun won’t set”. Dance and stage movement is elegantly choreographed by Robert La Fosse (who choreographed BSC’s West Side Stpry” a few seasons back. Most arresting is the balletic placement of chairs by the quintet (all superior vocalists, too) in the prelude to “Perpetual Anticipation” and the formal dinner scene. Julianne Boyd splendidly orchestrates all these elements for a memorable directorial swan-song as BSC's artistic director.
Of the many elegiac compositions Sondheim left us, my favorite is “Every Day a Little Death”, here superbly performed by Broadway pro Sierra Boggess as Countess Charlotte Malcolm. It's the plaintive Sondheim at his most plaintive, and it gets me every time.
If A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC has a special place in your heart, this Barrington Stage production fills it.