The Loeb Experimental Theater rarely hosts musicals, since coordinating both choreography and singing presents quite a challenge in the limited space. Yet director Joseph Gfaller '01 has been bold enough to attempt Sondheim in Harvard's little black box, and he manages to put on a great show. The opening scene of A Little Night Music, in which the cast dances a long, impressive waltz, sets the tone for the rest of the show. While the number is far from tragic, the eerie lighting and solemnity suggest the darker side of the play to come.
Thankfully, Sondheim gives audiences a guide to understanding A Little Night Music right from the beginning. The wheelchair-bound matron Leonora Armfeldt (Lucy MacPhail '01) explains to her granddaughter (Kari Gauksheim '01) that people fall into three categories: the young, the fools and the old. MacPhail does a wonderful job with her elderly, jaded character, providing perspective on the play by holding the rest of the characters in brazen contempt. The Leibeslieders, a kind of Greek chorus, add another narrative layer to the work. Each of the singers parallels a character and performs occasional scenes based the plot, though an exact connection is difficult to decipher. Along with Leonora's critique, the Leibeslieders have a surreal effect on A Little Night Music.
The main story line opens with the Egerman family. A middle-aged lawyer, Frederik (Tim Foley '98) has taken a trophy wife, Anne (Danielle Beurteaux), who is younger than his own son Henrik (Ezra Keshet '99). The inherent problems in such a match provide much of the tension that drives the play. Frederik lacks the energy to seduce the innocent Anne, for whom the idea of marital duty is confined to being cheerful around her husband. Henrik, a young seminarian, is equally naive and is confused by the attraction he feels for Anne. The three lament their bizarre love triangle in a musical trio, though only Beurteaux's beautiful soprano can be heard consistently.
Frederik is not the only character trying desperately to stay young. When actress Desiree Armfeldt (Kate Agresta '02), Frederik's former lover, comes to town, Frederik spies her on stage and escapes his wife for a nighttime tryst. Despite her age, Desiree has not lost her charms, and their ensuing rendez-vous stands out as the most artfully staged and intriguing scene in the play. The audience watches the pair's lovemaking silhouetted through a screen. At the same time, on a different part of the stage, Leonora appears to reminisce about her youth spent manipulating aristocrats and complains that her daughter's methods of seduction lack style. This commentary transforms the couple's reunion into a pathetic act and infuses the play with the odor of decay and loss.
Faced with a complicated script that regularly calls for a divided stage, Gfaller cleverly employs a revolving platform to smooth over some of the logistical difficulties. The platform helps characters enter and exit gracefully, and a carefully placed curtain allows it to revolve through a variety of locales without drawing undo attention to the technical crew. The instrumental ensemble is similarly discreet. Musical director Andy Boroson '01 leads on the piano, and the orchestra members keep a low profile, straining their eyesight in the dim light so as not to distract from the action on stage.
The performers are well cast, particularly Count Malcolm (Demian Ordway '99), one of Desiree's cocky young lovers who has "a brain the size of a pea." Playing Malcolm's wife Charlotte, Hallie Baal '99 stands out among the cast. She combines her strong, powerful voice with a memorable performance. When, for example, Malcolm sends Charlotte to tell Anne of Frederik's adultery, Baal evokes real sympathy from the audience as a woman caught between loving her husband and hating his infidelity. When the action moves to Leonora's country villa, Baal's poignant misery continues to stand out as her love for the Count drives her to ridiculous lengths.
The other characters also have great moments throughout the play. Desiree's touching rendition of "Send in the Clowns" caps her performance, as she and Frederik try to reconcile their love with their feeble efforts to maintain an illusion of youth. Desiree's sad experience is a great contrast to Anne's naivete, who, in the end, succeeds in convincing the audience that she has all the depth and sensitivity of a Swedish Barbie Doll.
A Little Night Music presents a host of difficult musical numbers. The cast manages most of the solos well, but several of the multi-part songs are unbalanced and difficult to follow. The two- and three-part numbers work better when the entire cast is is involved and can sustain a consistent volume. Every character has at least one difficult solo, so the entire production demands an enormous amount of energy from the cast.
Based on the Ingmar Bergman comedy, Smiles of a Summer Night, A Little Night Music leaves the audience perplexed. The young, the fools and the old all manage to pair up (more or less) successfully before the curtain falls, but one can hardly leave Gfaller's production with the feeling of having seen a romantic comedy. The resolution comes unexpectedly, and most of the characters remain wistful even in the arms of their lovers. This drama remains under the spell of Leonora's cynicism and the chorus's surrealism, just as the characters remain in the perpetual twilight of the Swedish summer.