Performance Network offers an irresistibly fun take on 'A Little Night Music'
photo by Sean Carter | courtesy of Performance Network
The cast and crew of Performance Network’s new production of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” had one of those opening nights that theater artists dread, where a whole series of little things go wrong: Umbrellas wouldn’t open; a maid’s cap fell off; a necklace broke offstage (sending beads bouncing across the floor); a dress’ train got caught on the scenery; the set’s focal point, a moon, didn’t get moved where it was supposed to go in one scene (so it was inched into position throughout the next); and there was some brief, nasty audio feedback.
Yet despite all this, “Night Music” was probably the most fun I’ve had at a production of a Sondheim show—so credit the Network’s seasoned, talented cast for not only soldiering through the technical mishaps, but also staying focused on executing director Phil Simmons’ witty vision for the show.
Based on Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” with a book by Hugh Wheeler, “Night Music” tells the story of a middle-aged actress, Desiree Armfeldt (Naz Edwards), who’s touring with a theater company when she spots her old lover, Fredrik (John Seibert), in the audience with his young trophy wife of 11 months, Anne (Adrienne Pisoni). Fredrik and Desiree’s passion is rekindled backstage, but then Desiree’s married lover, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Scott Crownover), disrupts them. Desiree soon asks her mother (Barbara Scanlon) to invite Fredrik’s family to her country estate for the weekend, but when Carl-Magnus and his wife arrive uninvited, everything is thrown into disarray.
While watching Simmons’ nearly-three-hour take on “Night Music,” I thought about how much clearer, and more moving, Shakespeare productions are when the performers have an unshakable grasp of precisely what they’re saying; the same goes for Sondheim. For the composer’s songs are dense and, while musically challenging, have information that’s absolutely vital to the audience’s understanding of the characters and the stakes. Performers can’t just sing the songs prettily; they have to communicate the meaning and emotion with meticulous clarity—and “Night Music”’s cast does this exceedingly well, thanks in large part to R. MacKenzie Lewis’ tremendous music direction. (Only the notoriously difficult opening scene, featuring Overture and “Night Waltz,” felt a little shaky on opening night, as though everyone was getting their feet under them, musically speaking.)
Anchoring the show is Edwards, whose undeniable charisma and killer singing chops make her a perfect Desiree. Seibert, meanwhile, seemingly offers a clinic on how vocal precision, expert comic timing, and subtle gestures and shifts in expression can stealthily charm the socks off an audience. Edwards' and Seibert’s duet, “You Must Meet My Wife” is a standout number.
Pisoni and Crownover are both powerhouse singers, and while they hilariously embrace the comically broad nature of their characters—Anne’s a chirpy, talk-a-mile-a-minute young woman, while Carl-Magnus is a hyper-masculine narcissist—they nonetheless manage to stay within the production’s bounds regarding tone. Plus, in supporting roles, Leslie Hull, as Petra the maid, and Barbara Scanlon, as Desiree’s elderly mother, have some winning moments of their own, while Eva Rosenwald, as Carl-Magnus’ wife, proves that bitterness can sometimes be downright hysterical.
Suzanne Young’s costumes, opening night logistics aside, successfully evoke the turn-of-the-20th-century era while also playfully underlining Simmons’ comic tone (Crownover’s moustache by itself is proof of that). Monika Essen designed the set—an evening landscape set behind sliding panels with numerous trees painted on them—as well as the props; and Daniel C. Walker provided the lighting design.
Simmons should, by rights, get the lion's share of praise; for while many Sondheim productions feel a bit dry, overwrought and overly reverent of this god of contemporary musical theater, Simmons’ “Night Music” takes a virtual highlighter to the script’s moments of potential humor and cashes in on every one, making the characters far more human and recognizable in the process.
A handful of minor, opening night technical glitches are ultimately no match for that level of emotional connection.