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Stage Review : A 'Music' Of Smaller Proportion

October 07, 1987|ROBERT KOEHLER

Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music," that concoction of Mozartean tones, waltz rhythms and Swedish passion, must make musical comedy practitioners giddy with anticipation. What female vocalist could resist the melancholy of "Send In the Clowns"? What male duo could turn down the prospects of "It Would Have Been Wonderful"? What choral quintet wouldn't kill to do "Remember"?

Theatre West, as part of its 25th anniversary celebration, couldn't say no to temptation. It's attempting, with mixed results, a scaled-down "Night Music" on a stage bigger than a postage stamp but considerably smaller than the Shubert (site of the 1974 Los Angeles premiere).

Size isn't much of a problem. Rather than an orchestra, pianist Norbert Zwickl directs a four-instrument ensemble (Patty Lebow on harp, Andy Taylor on cello and flute) that is full-bodied. The chorus of evening strollers have enough room on the stage to melodiously comment on the foolish lovers without bumping into each other. Director Mark W. Travis uses the aisles to lend the lovers' chases some extra energy.

The voices are even less of a problem. Bettina Devin's Anne is an elegant counterpoint to Maria Adams' Charlotte in "Every Day A Little Death" (the anthem-to-beat-all-anthems of sad, jilted wives). Doug Carfrae's Fredrik isn't in the majestic vocal league of Bill Malone's Count, but they make a nice match for "It Would Have Been Wonderful." The chorus, though not always of one voice, maintains a pristine quality throughout. Add Betty Garrett's handling of "Liaisons" (as Mme. Armfeldt) and Kevin McMahon squeezing every tormented drop out of Henrik, and you have a cast that's vocally close to the Broadway original.

The characters are another matter. Malone best exemplifies the crux of the problem: His stentorian singing emboldens Sondheim's music and lyrics, but his Count hardly suggests the affronted military ego of Hugh Wheeler's book.

The eye of this midsummer hurricane of romance is actress Desiree Armfeldt--the near-fatal object of the Count's and Fredrik's desires--yet Dianne Turley Travis's performance is a virtual cipher. The pining gentlemen notwithstanding, this woman is not "perfection"; rather, she is blandly American, without a star's allure nor the experienced lover's ability to seduce from a distance. Lacking a real Desiree, this production never finds the emotional magnetic field that draws Sondheim/Wheeler's strong-willed hearts into orbit.

"Night Music" was based on Bergman's masterful and rare dip into film comedy, "Smiles of a Summer Night." Watching the Sondheim show in these post-L.A. Festival days, it's hard to avoid recalling Bergman's sensual vision of "Miss Julie," especially since both stories largely take place during Sweden's midsummer eve--when the sun never sets.

With this inevitably (and not unfairly) in mind, Robert Farthing's set (lamely imitating Boris Aronson's original of moving panels) and Peter Parkin's lights become almost unwatchable in their flat, TV-like design. Like a magic show, every element in "A Little Night Music" must mesh, with added elegance. At Theatre West, some of the magic is simply lost.

Performances are at 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West on Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 3 and 8 p.m. through Nov . 8. Tickets: $15; (213) 851-7977.

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