The set-up: Has any classic Stephen Sondheim musical ever looked quite so ravishing as this Houston Grand Opera production of A Little Night Music, borrowed from Opera Theatre of Saint Louis?
Sondheim's multiple Tony-winner, awarded best Book (Hugh Wheeler), Score, and Musical, freely adapted from Ingmar Bergman's period movie romance Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), now takes place entirely within some enchanted woods like one of Shakespeare's beloved magic forests, where lost people, disjointed in love, discover themselves and their rightful partners. Famed couturier Isaac Mizrahi, tripling as director, set, and costume designer, overlays the bittersweet, wry story with an autumnal sheen. Vines twine up the legs of a piano, twigs sprout from bedposts, nature is ever-present. Magic's in the air.
The execution: Sondheim's misguided couples need all the help they can get. After 11 months, there's been no wedding night between middle-aged lawyer Fredrik Egerman (Chad Shelton) and his child bride Anne (Andrea Carroll). Needless to say he's anxious and frustrated.
Son Henrik (Brenton Ryan), a seminary student, grouses that the world is too frivolous, while he pines for his virginal step-mother. When old flame, actress Desiree Armfeldt (Elizabeth Futral), appears in town on tour, Egerman eagerly goes to see her for needed release. She, though, is having an affair with married Count Carl-Magnus (Mark Diamond), whose right of noblesse oblige does not extend to his long-suffering wife Charlotte (Carolyn Sproule), who resents her husband's macho bluster and string of mistresses.
Lusty maid Petra (Alicia Gianni) is ripe for all comers, never letting a chance encounter go to waste. Desiree's mother (Joyce Castle), a faded but wealthy old courtesan, bemoans the way the world has gone to seed, but Desiree's young daughter Fredrika (Grace Muir) - we're given the strong impression that she is Fredrik's daughter, too - clearly sees the adults around her as the fools they are.
The entire bunch is invited to Madame Armfeldt's estate for a "Weekend in the Country," where the misguided couples finally get it right. In the season of perpetual twilight where the light dazes and bewilders, the young, who know too little, the old, who know too much, and the fools, who know nothing, are reconciled under the rueful smiles of a summer night.
Sondheim's musical, perhaps his most beloved and accessible, beguiles like the Scandinavian light. It's all theme and variations on waltz tempos, but never once does it overplay or cloy. The music keeps reinventing itself, adding a strange harmony or double rhythm to keep things interesting. Like his smart lyrics that drip sophistication with pinprick insight, the waltz is the perfect sound for this European-inspired operetta that teases the old world while it remains refreshingly relevant to this current one. Nothing changes in the affairs of the heart, Night Music sings with illusive ardor. Love is foolish, lovers are fools, but the world couldn't be any other way.
"Send in the Clowns," Desiree requests in Sondheim's most popular tune, after Fredrik rebuffs her advances. "Me here at last on the ground/You in mid-air." The foibles of love and sex are perfectly matched in her elegantly simple song. Throughout, Jonathan Tunick's masterful orchestrations are replete with clarity and style, as well as supplying an entire semester's worth of insight on how one scores a musical that so utterly conveys the sound of the composer's intent.
Tunick and Sondheim mesh like the Golden Age Broadway team of Robert Russell Bennett and Richard Rodgers. Mostly comprised of strings and woodwinds, the orchestral tone is lilting and gossamer; the score intoxicates like the classiest of palm-court orchestras.
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The HGO cast weaves an impeccable spell. Most are current or former Studio artists, which proves the program's depth of field. Whether in classic Broadway or classic opera, these alum have been carefully taught. Even with his boyish face ringed by fluffy beard, Shelton is a robust Fredrik, young enough to ensnare Anne, mature enough for Futral's wily Desiree. He sings with superb diction that allows Sondheim's patented spiky wit to shine through, achieving all the laughs in patter song "Now," as he ponders, A: whether to ravish his virgin, or B: take a nap. This being Sondheim, what starts as a solo emerges as duet as Anne keeps her amorous husband at bay with "Soon," which turns into a trio as Henrik in the next room bewails his life in idle, "Later." Time and its variants - now, soon, later - are as fraught with importance to these would-be lovers as sex itself.
Futral is a glamorous, if slightly unkempt Desiree, her upswept hair falling in wayward tendrils as if she hasn't had sufficient time to do it right. Being an actress - "the one and only," her posters proclaim - she gets away with it with attitude, and her formidable attraction to chauvinist Magnus and true love Fredrick is easy to accept. But she's weary of lovers and the empty life on the road. Her resignation in "Send in the Clowns," when she realizes that she's blown her chances at long-term happiness, sends quiet chills through us. That's us up there on stage.
Diamond's Carl-Magnus exudes quintessential male posturing, all smug and handsome; Gianni's earthy maid Petra smolders with smutty delight; Ryan's Henrik burns comically with confused desire; and Muir's Fredrika - much younger than the teenager the script implies - is a Broadway baby in the making. Carroll's bright shiny soprano brings out Anne's innocence and petulance; while Sproule's deeper darker mezzo eats up the role of bitchy, needy Charlotte.
Lucky Sproule gets to sing "Every Day a Little Death," one of those trademarked Sondheim anthems for the worldly-wise, here a caustic paean to marriage the the erosion of spirit. (Company has "The Ladies Who Lunch;" Follies has "Losing My Mind.") Castle's Madame Armfeldt, gowned in black as if in mourning, has the hauteur of the super-rich and an old lady's prerogative to say just what's on her mind. She's the epitome of soignee and sadness. She gets one of Sondheim's most fragrant ballads, "Liaisons," an Offenbachian barcarolle, where she compares her former hedonism to today's classless romps.
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The show's chorus, the Quintet, serves as commentators throughout. They begin the musical with a lovely surprise, a vocal overture. Although attired in Edwardian undress - garters, baggy drawers, slips and peignoirs - they also wear fey little fairy wings, like they've tumbled out of an adult-sized Midsummer Night's Dream. This is designer Mizrahi run amok, too precious by half, as are the bewinged forest denizens who clutter up the space and move the many set pieces on and off stage. This is the problem with this unit set - no matter how delicious looking a forest - once Mizrahi decides to use realistic doorways, an iron bed, a settee, a dining room table big enough for eight, and a piano - he's got to get them off stage, too. The constant shuffling wastes time, even when underscored with Sondheim's sublime melodies. This rearranging in the woods impedes the musical's flow just when it should dance. Under maestro Eric Melear, this classic show, though, sings to perfection.
Opening night, the lighting had a mind of its own. The background scrim shorted out, flashing wayward blues and reds across the back panel like so much summer lightning. Although it must have caused paroxysms for the stage crew, the effect was most becoming. Everything was tamed by Act II, when Brian Nason's Pre-Raphaelite colors washed the stage again.
The verdict: As evidence of Sondheim's wide range, his two most successful musicals are A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd. Each one is completely different in manner and effect, yet both sound just like Sondheim. Nobody else could have written them. Todd is blood and guts and Theater of Cruelty. Night Music is ball gowns, trysts, and fin de siecle, a world soon to explode. Both explore and explain love and sex. Each different, but the same. I'm going with A Little Night Music. At least when the world ends, you go out with a waltz.
A Little Night Music. March 13, 15, 18, 19, 20, 22, 23m. Houston Grand Opera, Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. Purchase tickets online at www.houstongrandopera.org or call 713-228-OPERA (6737). $30 -$120.