Night Music Waltzes Between Melancholy and Joy


A Little Night Music

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

directed by Carolyn Rendell

at the Loeb Mainstage

April 14-16 a at 8 p.m.

There are unquestionably many limitations inherent in musicals. They come off as the performance art of drama; legitimately disrespected because of their artistic fluff, but persistently attempted because they are fun to perform. A little Night Music looks like fun for the chorus who ham up a good farce, but mysteriously the main singers play unconvincingly with dramatic pathos to convey the piece's darker strains. The musical struggles between glib and somber moods, the latter superfluous and unsuited to this piece, creating stylistic tension that director Carolyn Rendell never succeeds in reconciling.

Speaking strictly in terms of a comedy, the lack of a coherent mood becomes the greatest stumbling block to success. A light-hearted comic musical, by time-honored tradition, is understood to end happily no matter what happens in the first four acts. No one dies, only the villains end up with egg on their face, and just about everyone finds a love to run off with. Although the Bergman film on which the musical is based, "Smiles of a Summer Night," explores the darker side of romance, Sondheim's script and score revert to a more optimistic vision. HRDC's Night Music loses track of the inevitable happy ending and plays with conflicts as if they may never be resolved. All too often the players dwell heavily on melancholy as if it may prevail, rather than as a comedic device that the audience can see through to a festive conclusion.

The story is deliberately simplistic to showcase the music and the farce. Fredrik's son, Henrik (Ed Upton), has arrived home suddenly, hesitant to enter the monastery because of his love for his step-mother Anne (Catherine deLima). Anne is much younger than her husband, Fredrik (Colin Stokes), and wants to preserve her virginity. So Fredrik seeks satisfaction in his old romance, Desiree (Lacey Tucker), whose theater troupe is passing through town. The affair is not long without complications. Desiree's jealous lover Carl-Magnus (Daren Firestone), a moronic dragoon who loves to fight, shows up just as the two lovers are emerging from her bedroom, and soon he is complaining of the infidelity of his wife Charlotte (Vonnie Roemer). Charlotte is down but not defeated and sets about planning to win him back. A weekend at Desiree's family estate provides the perfect opportunity for all jealous lovers and spouses to set things right again.

Somehow these familiar gender battles are played as serious conflicts despite little depth of thought in the script to justify the treatment. Upton's portarayal of Henrik, for instance, is at once pathetic and sympathetic, but plunged too deeply in melancholy to make his overtures to the maid and his step mother amusing. The others seems to follow his lead when playing out marital strife caused by infidelities, both real and merely desired. The result is a series of quasi-serious conflicts rather than the farcical situation comedies of the script. Stokes attempts some slapstick with his rejected advance on his prudish wife, but de Lima dulls the exasperations of their frustrated marriage by taking her role too seriously. Only Roemer always sustains a humorous bite in her more emotionally challenging scenes.

Other love triangles also into real rather than melodramatic tension, making Night Music a drama sprinkled with humor rather than a farce toned down with drama. Tucker and Stokes' performances never really accentuate the buffoonery of Firestone's Count, so he escapes as less than simply laughable. Scenes change abruptly from dark confessions of love and desire to frivolous and hypocritical jealousy making vital transitions to key jokes difficult. Likewise, halting delivery and slow entrances take the snap out of potential fun. The jokes take too long to develop where a few crisp exchanges would bring the excitement of fresh conflict to life, and the delivery of punchlines is often so ambiguous as to disguise rather than elucidate the speaker's intent.

Singing, instead of speaking, about emotions and situations actually better conveyed the intended mood of this piece. The consistently frivolous chorus, played with great flamboyance, brings the lighter mood back into play. Everyone succeeds in putting great fun into the flouncy pop score by Stephen Sondheim. His lyrics and expression are what the hardcore thespian would disparagingly lable witty; they nevertheless succeed in drawing the players up from their dramatic doldrums. But while de Lima and Upton stand out with rich, impressive voices, several other performances are inconsistent with their standard, preventing the music from carrying the production on its own.

Just when a well-crafted song concludes or a set technique impresses, jarring flaws, each insignificant in itself, detract from the many strengths of the show. Attempts at more elaborate illusions such as Henrik's cello synchronization with the orchestra are better scrapped simply to preserve more sustainable disbelief. The costumes are stunning and the sets all but professional. Great care is taken of affect educated English accents (by some) and to otherwise strut and behave like European aristocrats. But then the impact of successful flourishes like the impressively choreographed waltzes at the opening and closing curtains are diminished by unnecessary distractions like the loud shuffling of the dancers' feet out of time to the music.

In the end these details add up to an unfinished project. Many such giltches would be simple to mend, but until they are, the transportation of time and place of this visually arresting production is needlessly undermined. At a more fundamental level, misplaced dramatic pretensions in comedy simply create confusion.