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'Night Music' plays again, beautifully

A dexterous cast revives the 1973 Tony-winning Sondheim-Wheeler musical at South Coast Repertory.

September 18, 2007|Sean Mitchell | Special to The Times

For any theatergoer who has never seen Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music," reason enough would be to discover the context for the composer's most famous song, "Send in the Clowns." But there are many more reasons to see the current production at South Coast Repertory, which has mounted a thoroughly entertaining, beautifully realized version of this musical that won 1973 Tony Awards for best musical, book and score but remains perhaps lesser known than Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd," "Sunday in the Park with George" and "Into the Woods."

Directed with precision and an abiding sense of delight by Stefan Novinski, the show waltzes (literally) through a tangle of Swedish turn-of-the-last-century romantic misalliances that must be set straight by evening's end, touching high notes of farce and feeling packed into a libretto so witty and dense, it begs to be taken home and read at one's leisure. (Hugh Wheeler wrote the book.)

Stephanie Zimbalist, while hardly a newcomer to the stage, is something of a revelation as Desiree, the middle-age actress whose long-ago affair with the lawyer Fredrik Egerman (Mark Jacoby) is rekindled when her latest theatrical tour comes to town. Zimbalist, in her first appearance at SCR, brings heft and authority to a role that demands an actress release some of her vanity while summoning a good comedian's timing, and she manages to do both.

Jacoby makes a fine partner for her, playing the silly yet sly lawyer whose latest marriage to a woman young enough to be his daughter is not going well. With a voice big enough to have sung the title role in "The Phantom of the Opera" on a national tour, Jacoby reins it in here to deliver lyric after wry lyric with effortless charm.

You know it's a good cast when even the maid (Misty Cotton) can sing, as she demonstrates in Act 2 announcing her plans to marry "The Miller's Son," amid the romantic tomfoolery of the upper class.

Surely Sondheim would admire the level of artistry attained by musical director Dennis Castellano, who plays keyboards while conducting a chamber orchestra seated upstage, supplying the singers with the delicate contours they must traverse in the operetta-like score.

Based on Ingmar Bergman's film "Smiles of a Summer's Night," "A Little Night Music" shows off Sondheim's mordant humor on the subject of love while acknowledging its undeniable power. "I'm afraid marriage is not one of the easier relationships," Fredrik says tellingly to the Countess Charlotte Malcolm (Amanda Naughton), whose husband, the vainglorious Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Damon Kirsche), is Desiree's latest lover and therefore rival to the re-smitten Fredrik.

Fredrik's wife, Anne (Carolann Sanita), is, in fact, in love with her stepson Henrik (Joe Farrell), a dour divinity student who wants to return her interest but is beset with guilt. Underscoring his role by practicing gloomy riffs on the cello, Farrell has great fun with the character without digressing into a Scandinavian cartoon.

The same goes for Naughton in the mock lugubrious role of a woman whose affirmation for life is summed up in the song "Every Day a Little Death," which contains the memorable couplet "Men are stupid, men are vain, love's disgusting, love's insane" sung in a duet with Sanita, her operatic counterpart in marital disappointment.

Act 1 set variously in Fredrik's home, at the theater and Desiree's dressing room, closes with Desiree persuading her crusty old mother, Madame Armfeldt (Teri Ralston), former lover to counts and kings, to invite the several unhappy couples to her country home for "A Weekend in the Country," as the cast sings in an ensemble number.

In Act 2, the setting shifts to nature as depicted by Sibyl Wickersheimer's airy backdrop of a forest holding Madame Armfeldt's house. Here, a drunken party sends the mismatched couples into realignment.

When Fredrik ventures to Desiree's room to share his reawakened emotion for her and reflect on the impossibility of his situation, she responds with "Send in the Clowns," an unambiguously poignant departure from the evening's frothy sendups, its lyrics comparing middle-age romantic disappointment to a tragic accident in the circus. The song was made famous in versions by Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins, but it was written during the show's original rehearsals for Glynis Johns, a fine actress and limited singer.

Elizabeth Taylor and Judi Dench have sung it on earlier occasions, and Zimbalist carries it off effectively, not blowing us away with her pipes yet finding a satisfying range that conveys the tenderness of the scene without hitting a false note. When she gets to reprise the song in a later duet with Jacoby, the melody doubles in strength, and their delayed pairing seems undeniably right.

It's worth noting that Ralston appeared in the original Broadway production as a member of the chorus -- a group that comes and goes providing preface and punctuation in song to the late-night Swedish summer madness. At SCR, she proves to be a crowd-pleaser, issuing Madame Armfeldt's caustic proclamations with whiplash force while seated in a wheelchair.

She is just one of an array of crowd-pleasers in this stirring revival.


'A Little Night Music'

Where: South Coast Repertory,

655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Oct. 7

Price: $35 to $70

Contact: (714) 708-5555

Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes

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