Before the lights dimmed at the opening of A Little Night Music, someone in the audience told his companions to get ready for a PG-13 production. The use of movie ratings to describe a Stephen Sondheim musical shows how unfocused our stage sensibilities have become. But Houston Grand Opera's Night Music is one of those rare productions that'll grab a film addict as tightly as it does the Broadway-musical and repertory buff. Suggested by Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night, it's a deliciously sardonic operetta about love, both real and foolish, and sexual desire, with a whiff of bedroom farce made more sophisticated by impeccable opera-house heavyweights Frederica von Stade and Thomas Allen.
The plot is based on six interconnected love triangles. The story -- half-sung and half-spoken, set in turn-of-the-century Sweden -- begins when middle-aged lawyer Fredrik Egerman is taken by the sight of his former lover, Desiree Armfeldt, in a stage performance. Lame attempts to hide his emotion cause his suspicious teenaged wife, Anne, to flee the theater in tears. (She's also oblivious to the gaze of the smitten Henrik, a pious seminarian and her husband's son.) Fredrik sneaks out to reunite with Desiree.
Happily unclad, they are suddenly alerted by the voice of Desiree's lover, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, who almost bursts in on them. They manage to lie their way out of trouble. Carl-Magnus returns to his miserably faithful wife, Charlotte, and pouts about the infidelity of his mistress. Determined to put a stop to Desiree's new dalliance, he commands Charlotte to take advantage of her friendship with Anne and tattle on Fredrik, which she does. Now Anne and Charlotte distrust their husbands. Meanwhile, Desiree thinks of a scheme to lure Fredrik back into her life. After all, she has a daughter to raise and a middle-aged life to share. She asks her mother, Madame Armfeldt, to invite Fredrik and Anne to her country estate for the weekend. When Carl-Magnus hears of Desiree's plan, he shows up with his wife to disrupt the lovers once again.
One contrivance -- the five figures moving stiffly like dolls during the overture -- takes away from the genuine quality of this production. Otherwise, the principal players never overact the parts. Longtime opera doyenne Evelyn Lear, as Madame Armfeldt, sets the sardonic tone for this romance from the start. She plays a former courtesan now wheelchair-bound, dishing out the show's best lines and truisms on life and love. As the world-weary, sanguine Desiree, mezzo-soprano von Stade is a colorful, stately comedienne. Caught in the same bedroom with Fredrik (Thomas Allen) and Carl-Magnus (Frank Hernandez) during a moment of truth, she's elegant and funny.
When von Stade sings the wistful, ironic "Send in the Clowns," she falters at all the right moments. (It's a refreshing way to hear this ballad after decades of Judy Collins on the radio.) Here, the mezzo reveals a powerful talent for playing down her vocal powers in a song that Sondheim made undemanding for Glynis Johns, the original Broadway Desiree.
Allen is no less appealing as he knocks about in the love triangle. His rich, lively baritone is both funny and moving in the wry duet (with von Stade) "You Must Meet My Wife" and duo (with Hernandez) "It Would Have Been Wonderful." In the delicate scenes with his youthful wife, Anne (soprano Nanne Puritz), Allen is not quite the convincing unfulfilled husband. Nor is Puritz prepossessing enough as the innocent, platonically distant wife, although her wavy golden locks make her appear suitably callow. But Puritz and Charlotte (mezzo-soprano Sheri Greenawald) are a confection of clarity in their melancholy duet "Every Day a Little Death." In the second act, Puritz's character gets better as her passion for Henrik (tenor John McVeigh) is slowly kindled.
The show's best line is uttered by Hernandez: "A civilized man can tolerate his wife's infidelities, but when it comes to his mistress, a man becomes a tiger." For Desiree, he manages in the bedroom to make up for what he lacks upstairs. But by the middle of the second act, the baritone's voice is more versatile and enduring than his posturing as Carl-Magnus.
Singer-actress Leslie Ann Hendricks shines in her sleeper role as Petra, Anne Egerman's lively, naughty maid. She heats up Henrik a couple of times and tumbles on stage with Frid, the butler. And her gorgeously rendered "The Miller's Son," balancing slow ballad with cabaret sensuality, wakes up the audience before the show's finale.
HGO has a knack for staging new interpretations while still managing to preserve enough traditional style and content. Director Michael Leeds produced his show on the new multimedia, modular stage that allows for elegant special effects. Instead of being placed in the pit, the orchestra -- conducted by Grant Gershon -- sits across several graduated rows at the back of the stage. Arranged this way, the musicians are part of the show, more like players in the rear of a nightclub instead of orchestral accompaniment.
During choice moments they actually are in the show. Pianist Michael Baitzer shares his piano seat with Desiree's daughter. When Carl-Magnus has almost caught his mistress with his rival, Fredrik is at a loss for a hiding place. Frantic, he takes the conductor's baton and faces the orchestra to camouflage himself.
In elevating farce to this sophisticated level, Leeds and company have outdone themselves. With help from Sondheim, they've taken romantic waltzes and sprinkled them with a few raw PG-13 antics: the stock untangling of mismatched lovers. They bring the show to a satisfying, believable conclusion, with vocals rarely excelled by Broadway.
A Little Night Music runs February 6-14 at the Wortham Theater Center, 500 Texas Ave. For more information, call (713)227-
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