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By Donald V. Calamia
Posted: Nov. 24, 2012 at 5:30 p.m.
The first time I listened to the soundtrack of Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music," I fell in love with it. A few years later, I saw the show for the first time, and it became my all-time favorite musical, a position it retains after 36 years. With a sophisticated plot and a score that's likely the most difficult to sing in all of musical theater, "Night Music" is rarely professionally produced – thanks, in part, to a budget-busting payroll that's needed to bring the show to life. But more importantly, theater companies that tackle the show without singers and actors who can conquer the complexities of Sondheim's operatic creation do themselves and Sondheim no favor. In such cases, the result can be excruciating. And embarrassing for all involved.
So when news leaked that Ann Arbor's Performance Network Theatre was considering "Night Music" for a future season – and that Naz Edwards was attached to it in the role of Desiree Armfeldt – a happier theater critic couldn't be found. And when the show was announced with John Seibert playing opposite her as Fredrik Egerman, I knew for sure that theatergoers were in for a treat.
As anticipated, I was proved correct on opening night when director Phil Simmons and the magic of live theater brought forth a near-perfect production of Sondheim's signature work.
With "Night Music," Sondheim (music and lyrics) and Hugh Wheeler (book) explore the nature of relationships and all their messy permutations. Set in Sweden at the turn of the 20th century, old flames Desiree Armfeldt and Fredrik Egerman are reunited when a play starring the actress arrives in the lawyer's hometown. The problem? Middle-aged Fredrik is married to Anne (Adrienne Pisoni), an immature but beautiful 18-year-old virgin, and Desiree is having an affair with the overly jealous and very married Count Carl-Magnus Malcom (Scott Crownover). Add to the mix Fredrik's son Henrik (Joseph Feldmann), a frustrated seminarian with a secret crush; the Count's conniving wife, Charlotte (Eva Rosenwald); and a weekend in the country – and the road to disaster couldn't be clearer.
Those intimately familiar with the show will find a few surprise treats scattered throughout director Simmons' production. (I assume he's also the uncredited choreographer.) With music director R. MacKenzie Lewis, much research into the show's history was conducted, which resulted in the seamless integration of previously cut lyrics and songs into the production. The result is well worth the effort.
Simmons' 11 actors move on, off and about the stage quite nicely, with scene changes occurring briskly and with much entertainment. But where he excels is digging into the characters' personalities and motives. There's no ambiguity here, and his cast brings the story to life quite vividly.
As a result, the production features a true ensemble – and that includes the six musicians, whose work is the best I've experienced in recent seasons. Each character is carefully delineated and the role beautifully sung. And the harmonies (with but a few brief exceptions) are angelic.
Even the supporting characters are given moments to shine. Zach Barnes (credited as one of two Lieder Singers, a Greek chorus type of role) only has to raise an eyebrow and grin slightly to let you know what his character is thinking. And the buxom Leslie Hull is wonderful using her God-given assets to help define the Armfeldt family maid, Petra.
Four performances merit special attention, however.
Barbara Scanlon is delightful as the aging Madame Armfeldt, Desirees' mother, who – like her daughter – has a rather colorful past. Watch as the elderly woman quietly melts into the past as she recalls her many "Liaisons." Hers is a spot-on interpretation that will leave you smiling because of its warmth and honesty.
Conversely, Crownover's bombastic Count is a lesson on how to use carefully constructed, over-the-top gestures, facial expressions and mustaches for comedic effect. As usual, it's a masterful performance from one of the local stars of the musical theater genre.
Finally, musical theater is at its best when uber-talented stage veterans unite in a production that uses their immense skills and experiences to their fullest. That's certainly true with the combination of Edwards and Seibert in "Night Music." Together and with others in the cast, each is in top-notch form. But watch them sizzle in the best-known song from the show, "Send in the Clowns." Flawlessly sung, the emotions emanating from the two are palpable and unforgettable. And their humorous "You Must Meet My Wife" is a gem.
Monika Essen's set and projections evoke the time and country setting; panels slide in and out to help make scene changes quick and efficient. Lighting is by Daniel C. Walker, and costumes by Suzanne Young channel the era in which the play occurs.
Gremlins, however, nibbled around the fringes of the show. A few light cues were late, an occasional set piece didn't end up where it was supposed to, various noises intruded from backstage, and a necklace came apart offstage, scattering its many round, rolling piece parts in all directions. If the actors noticed these and a few other unexpected intrusions, they hid it well.
To many, Sondheim is considered a theater god. If so, Simmons' production is a fine offering that I suspect would please him greatly.
SHOW DETAILS: "A Little Night Music" continues at Performance Network Theatre, 120 E. Huron, Ann Arbor, Thursday-Sunday through Dec. 30. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes. Tickets: $30-$46. For information: 734-663-0681 or www.performancenetwork.org.
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