As I’ve admitted in the past, I’m not a huge Sondheim fan, so when I approach a musical of his that I have not seen before, I’m coming from a non-Swoonheim perspective. I get the appreciation of his work and his undeniable talent; it’s just not always music that appeals to me. Sure, the lyrics are clever, and the stories are intriguing, but putting on a Sondheim score while cleaning my house isn’t something I’d do.
That said, Pasadena Playhouse’s 6-month celebration of all things Sondheim has (so far) been a fun education of the man and his work. Their delightful production of “Sunday in the Park with George” was wonderful, and because of that, I gained an appreciation for it. (However, I still won’t be popping in the CD during my next road trip.)
With “A Little Night Music,” the Pasadena Playhouse has assembled a terrific group of artists and designers to mount a beautiful production of one of Sondheim’s lesser, earlier works. Based on the Ingmar Bergman film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” the musical revolves around several couples in Sweden who are all dancing around feelings they have for other people.
There’s Madam Armfeldt (Jodi Long), a former courtesan relinquished to a wheelchair who dazzles her granddaughter Fredericka (Makara Gamble) with tales of the men she’s loved before. Her own daughter Desiree (Merle Dandridge) is a famous actress who has taken a few lovers, both of which are married to other people.
One of those men is Fredrik Egerman (Michael Hayden), an older lawyer married to the 18-year-old Anne (Kaley Ann Voorhees), while the other is Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Ryan Silverman), a dragoon married to Countess Charlotte Malcolm (Sarah Uriarte Berry) who is very much aware of her husband’s affair.
The very young Anne isn’t so clued into her husband’s dalliances. She’s also still a virgin and has a bit of a thing for her husband’s adult son Henrik (Chase Del Rey), who is attending seminary even though he is clearly in love with Anne.
The other key player here is the free-spirited Petra (Ruby Lewis), the Egerman maid who will pretty much sleep with and enjoy whomever she wants.
All of these stories get entwined and entrapped together, culminating in a “Weekend in the Country” where everyone’s secrets are revealed – for better or worse.
So, here’s where my lack of love for Sondheim comes in. The musical numbers- while sung to near perfection – don’t always stay with you once you leave the theater. With the exception of the iconic “Send in the Clowns,” which is probably one of Sondheim’s most famous tunes and which oddly feels out of place in the musical itself. Dandridge does a lovely version of it, however, and it hits emotionally.
But despite my feelings about the music itself, the cast is uniformly excellent. Dandridge is a clear standout with her regality, confidence, and passion. Voorhees is also a hoot as the naive virginal wife of a lawyer. But it is Ruby Lewis who almost steals the entire show with her second-act belter “The Miller’s Son.” Narratively, her story comes pretty late in the show and almost out of nowhere, but that’s the doing of book writer Hugh Wheeler. It’s a stand-out number and one of the more interesting characters in the narrative.
I enjoyed all of the stories that were playing out on stage, and the cast pulls you into the bawdiness and playfulness of their hapless situations. The scenic design is gorgeous, and the live orchestra (of which we are allowed an on-stage glimpse at the beginning of the second act) is spectacular.
Fans of Sondheim will love this new production, and even if you’re a Sondheim grump like me, you’ll still find many pleasures on this Pasadena Stage.