Smiles on a Summer Night

A Little Night Music at the Eliot House Dining Hall tonight through Saturday at 8 p.m.

THE SUMMER NIGHT has three smiles: one for the young, one for the fools and one for the old. In the course of A Little Night Music, as lovers discover the arms they were fated for, it smiles benignly three times. To the twinkle of harp music, the night forgives all: the ignorance of youth, the meddlesomeness of elders, the folly of the misguided. Given its abundant compassion, one wonders how kindly the summer night would have looked upon this production.

There is not much wrong with the Eliot House version of A Little Night Music that tighter direction and a few good voices could not fix. This is not to say that the acting is good; some of it is terrible. But by far the best thing about this musical is Stephen Sondheim's marvelously sophisticated and tuneful score, and to stage a production which fails to do justice to it is more than foolish. It is a dramatic crime.

Cataloguing the weaknesses of this production would be the easy thing to do. Better perhaps to start with its highlight: a charismatic vignette by Patty Woo as the devilishly sensuous maid. Uninhibited and secure in her own sexuality, Petra serves as a foil to the other characters, who are trapped in false unions and unable to heed their hearts' urgings. Woo's eloquent rendition of "The Miller's Son," a defense of her free and easy lifestyle and a prayer for future stability, is her only moment in the spotlight. But the energy and excitement she brings to this number throw into relief the relative absence of those qualities from the rest of the show.

Aside from Woo, the cast suffers from a lack of guidance from director Kenneth Sanek. The worst victims--and offenders--are Terry Knickerbocker as Fredrik Egerman and Denice Villa Peter as his virginal young wife Anne. Knickerbocker has a rich, mellow speaking voice, but little conception of how to use it. His singing, while pleasant, is much too weak for the role, and his characterization of Egerman, a stuffy middle-aged lawyer, is too low-keyed. Since in any production Egerman is likely to be overshadowed by the glamorous figure of his mistress Desiree, underplaying the role invites disaster. Knickerbocker walks through his part a virtual blank, good-looking, nice-sounding and totally vacuous.

EGERMAN'S COMPANION in marital misfortune is no better. Peter, like Knickerbocker, has too small a voice for her part, as well as considerable trouble reaching those elusive high notes. The proper balance of teasing innocence and charm which is Anne's trademark proves equally elusive for Peter. Her attempts at coyness and sorrow alike end up forced and grating.

These two performances make Deborah Jean Templin's Desiree look very good by comparison. Templin, who plays an actress who is always on and the director of the matrimonial musical chairs, has life, presence and a wardrobe of elegant costumes. She can also sing--not as stunningly, perhaps, as one might wish, but well enough to convey the poignant irony of the show's finest song, "Send in the Clowns." In her case, a stronger directorial hand would surely have added luster to an already adequate performance.

The sloppiness of this production surfaces elsewhere--in the lack of climactic tension in key scenes, in awkward exits and entrances, in cramped staging and choreography. While the size of the set seems to encourage movement, its construction on different levels actually inhibits it. There is almost no choreography to speak of--just a series of stiff, back-and-forth movements in waltz time. As the music swells expansively in the "Night Waltz," for instance, the dancers--to use the term in its loosest sense--remain rigidly in place, tracing out small, clumsy circles.

The overture and this opening number are, to be fair, the nadir of the show. After this, despite the efforts of the orchestra, A Little Night Music has moments of muted sparkle which, sadly, remind us of what a good production might have been like. There are, for example, the performances of Robert Suttton as Henrik Egerman, Fredrik's tormented son, whose passion for the ministry cloaks his passion for his stepmother, and of Caroline Jones, who is genuinely sympathetic as the Countess Charlotte Malcolm. If Charlotte's husband Carl Magnus (Nick Littlefield) is somewhat wooden, his stiffness is forgivable on two counts: first, he is, after all, no more than a "tin soldier," and secondly, he can sing. In this show, that is no small boon. On the other hand, Bonny Fay Landers's Madame Armfeldt, Desiree's mother, is too much crotchetiness and not enough whimsy.

Most irksome, though, is this production's inability to establish or sustain any sort of dramatic mood. Part of the problem is, of course, the weakness of the voices--notably those in the chorus, which appears on stage with annoying regularity to remind the leads of the power of memory. Nor is the Hugh Wheeler book, based on Ingmar Bergman's enchanting movie Smiles of a Summer's Night, in a class with Sondheim's score. But, in the end, the chief culprit is again Sanek's weak direction, which fails either to paint the frustrations of mismatched love or to create the mood of enchantment which resolves them. In the first case, we hear Fredrik singing while Anne mumbles to herself by her dressing table; in the second, a misplaced candelabra obscures faces confronting one another over Madame Armfeldt's dining table. Only the magical twinkling of the harp in the second scene finally distinguishes between the two.

AT ONE POINT, near the end, Fredrik tells Desiree that he should never have come to her mother's countryside retreat "to flirt with rescue" when he had no intention of being saved. Whatever its intentions, this production's own flirtation with rescue ends up less successful than stuffy old Fredrik's. On second thought, even the summer night might not have been kind.