Take an urbane lawyer, an alluring actress, and a handsome if hopelessly chauvinist soldier. Send them spinning through the indignities of a middle-aged love triangle. Set an ancient courtesan to watch, providing caustically funny commentary to a supporting cast of scorned wives and neglected daughters, randy servants and religious-reformist sons. Scatter emotional complications and romantic cross-currents among the ensemble, and score the whole business with waltzes that span the mood spectrum from sumptuous to sprightly, and what do you have?
You have A Little Night Music, at once a charming comedy, a heartfelt love story, and an enchantingly clever exercise in form—and one of musical theater’s most enduringly elegant constructions. Is there any need to mention that it’s the creation of Stephen Sondheim?
Set in a halcyon late-summer Sweden in the waning days of the 19th century, Night Music takes its inspiration from the winsome Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night, but the magic that makes it a stage classic is purely Sondheim’s. Inspired by the unlikely, overlapping triangular romances at the story’s center, he crafted a score built entirely on the graceful, three-sided figure of the waltz. (Or variations thereon: There are upbeat bits in 6/8 time, melancholy musings in 3/2, and syncopated martial ditties that don’t sound much like waltzes, but the underlying pulse is always a triple one.)
But these songs are so much more than musical tricks: They are terrific show songs, in that they do as much storytelling work as the book scenes with which Hugh Wheeler frames them. (Consider “Now,” “Later,” and “Soon,” three introductory solos that tangle themselves into a trio setting up nearly all of the show’s primary relationships.) They soar, they lilt, they ruminate to and chatter among themselves; they bow, precisely and pleasingly, in the direction of Lehar and Romberg and the family Strauss. They encompass attitudes as brittle as irony (“You Must Meet My Wife”) and as honest as regret (“Send in the Clowns,” so hackneyed to the pop-cultured ear and so quietly heartbreaking in context). They are, taken as a whole, an exquisite and astonishingly unified display of the serious composer’s art—and yet they never steal focus from the story they serve.
“Perpetual anticipation…is bad for the heart,” one of those melodies argues, and indeed the lawyer, Fredrik Egerman, and his old flame, Desiree Armfeldt, seem, for all their wealth of worldly experience, to be waiting for their lives truly to start. Fredrik (a marvelously laconic John Dossett) keeps counting the blessings of his marriage to the charming Anne (Sarah Uriarte Berry), who’s beautiful but barely 18; though he sees at some level the ridiculousness of his situation, he’s “fallen under the spell of youth, beginnings—the blank page.” (One of the great joys of the Kennedy Center’s summer repertory effort is the chance to listen as Sondheim works out a series of core concerns in a string of styles and contexts: The “blank page” and its possibilities are seductions that muddy the emotional waters for the painter in Sunday in the Park With George, too—and what do the compromised characters in Merrily We Roll Along keep wishing for, if not the chance to wipe clean the slate and start over?)
A fresh start, not coincidentally, is what Desiree (Blair Brown) tries to engineer after a chance encounter brings the two long-parted lovers together. The actress realizes, once she’s listened to Fredrik protest too much about the wonders of Anne, that he’s as unhappy with his simpering, empty-headed child bride as she is with the swaggering, empty-headed officer she’s been seeing between stops on her hectic touring schedule. And she engineers, in a glorious first-act finale sung in a headlong 6/8, “A Weekend in the Country” at which she means to show him what he’s missing.
Difficulties arise, naturally; they come primarily in the person of that jealous soldier (Douglas Sills, singing superbly but looking eerily like George Hamilton behind the slender villainy of his moustache) and his much-abused, mordantly witty wife (Randy Graff, a severely delicious sketch of a society matron, who neatly steals scene after scene with her arch asides). The two of them, having clued poor Anne in about what’s been going on, turn up uninvited at the spacious country house at which Desiree’s forbidding old mother holds court; the resulting tension makes for splendidly tense dinner-table banter, not to mention a series of alternately riotous and rueful encounters in various salons, sculpture gardens, and sylvan glades, all conjured with minimalist grace by set designer Derek McLane.
Indeed, director Mark Brokaw and his designers keep creating stage pictures so gorgeously autumnal that you want the action to pause just so you can look at them a while longer. Howell Binkley’s lighting saturates the action in jewel-toned washes—warm reds, indigos, purples, and oranges, all as rich as the irony and the longing that permeate the proceedings. (The weak design links are Michael Krass, whose costumes run from the merely uninspired to the unforgivably unflattering, and Tom Morse, whose sound leaves singers overexposed or undersupported but never anywhere in between.)
What’s missing amid all the loveliness is that glow of personal warmth that’s meant to suffuse the show—and if I had to name a culprit, I’d say it’s mostly Brown who’s not radiating it the way she might. Her Desiree is in no way disagreeable, but neither could she be said to be even mildly intoxicating; worse, she never embodies for a moment the kind of comfort and sureness Fredrik so plainly needs. And it’s never entirely clear that she needs him, either; certainly your heart never stirs in her direction.
Barbara Bryne, too, misses opportunities with the character of Desiree’s mother, the redoubtable old lady whose affairs were the kind to remember (and sometimes to regret)—and whose efforts earned her the grand chateau at which so many characters learn their second-act lessons in love. Bryne sails through the book scenes smashingly, dispensing aphorisms as tartly as a dowager from Wilde, but there’s a curious flatness to her “Liaisons,” a song that can wink and ache and sigh all at once in the right hands. Ultimately, her wisdom simply doesn’t feel earned—which robs the show of resonance in no small measure.
Musical director Nicholas Archer doesn’t help; his orchestra sounds thin and pallid in the score’s most opulent moments, which not coincidentally arrive just as the story becomes most honestly emotional. There are weaknesses, too, in the strolling chorus of lieder singers who comment constantly on the action—not Christopher Flint, whose light baritenorish sound is a sweet standout—and several in the cast got tripped up by tricky rhythms or tongue-twister lyrics at last Sunday’s matinee.
There are compensations. Graff’s performance is notable among them, as is the neat jewel of a scene Sondheim gives to Anne’s maid toward the end of the evening; Natascia Diaz draws layer after layer of feeling from “The Miller’s Son,” making it every bit the showstopper it’s expected to be. (Sunday’s audience thanked her for it, too; she caused as much clamor at the curtain call as any of the stars.)
Ultimately, though, these are high points in a show that ought to have more. It’s a fair bet that the programming powers at the Kennedy Center left Night Music for last because they wanted a smashing success to cap their summerlong celebration of Sondheim’s work. With a show this generous and lovely, that’s not an unreasonable target—but somehow Brokaw has managed to miss it.
Downtown, in a rather smaller house, a rather younger company operating on a rather smaller budget has rather boldly addressed itself to a subject not entirely unrelated to Sondheim’s. The title character in YBS Theatre’s The Bride has a good deal less initiative (and a lot less freedom to maneuver) than Desiree, but Cahit Atay’s play is nothing if not concerned about her happiness.
The trouble is that the playwright, who’s apparently one of Turkey’s leading dramatic lights, seems even more concerned about the customs and social structures that make happiness an unlikely prospect for the beautiful young Sultan, whose father sells her into an unfortunate marriage to finance the rebuilding of his dwindling estate.
Sultan’s troubles and the inequities that increase them are nothing to brush aside, but The Bride is less a play than a scantily clad polemic; Atay dispenses with fleshed-out characters, presenting instead a series of types who mouth arguments until the inevitable awful thing happens to show them all the error of their old-fashioned ways. Bakesta King, as Sultan, and the rest of Yildiz Yilmaz’s energetic young cast do what they can with the play, but its thinness too often inspires them to overemote.
But the company is young—brand new, in fact, and born of a shared drama-school experience—and apparently its principals collaborated not too long ago on a university production of The Bride. Now that YBS has staged the play it needed to stage, let us hope it will find itself moved by richer stories. CP