Perfect mix of laughs, laments in “A Little Night Music”

by Colin Dabkowski, The Buffalo News
3-1/2 Stars (out of 4)
Five times a week through Oct. 18, theatergoers will make their way into the Andrews Theatre on Main Street, the orchestra will strike up a waltz and the outside world will melt completely away.

In its place arose Chris Kelly’s light, lithe and beautifully performed production of “A Little Night Music, ” Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s dreamy, three-quarter-time fantasia on the foolishness of love, the fickleness of devotion and the difference between the two.

Though set in turn-of-the-century Sweden and performed in period costumes, make no mistake that the 1973 show, based on Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” is thoroughly contemporary in at least one important way: Nearly all of its characters want sex, and they’ll lie their three-piece suits and corsets off to get it.

For the most part, those characters are timeless archetypes to be found in any stubbornly patriarchal society, from the insecure if apparently irresistible lawyer Frederik Egerman (Matthew Witten) to his naïve young wife Anne (Renee Landrigan) and the faded actress Desiree Armfeldt (Jenn Stafford) to whom Frederik is truly drawn.

If the characters sound familiar, the songs are something else entirely. In few other musicals does Sondheim display such simultaneously witty and unsparing lyricism, which manifests itself in such peerless songs as “You Must Meet My Wife,” “Every Day a Little Death” and “Send in the Clowns,” to which Stafford brings every ounce of required pathos.

Nearly every moment in the musical is infused with a tension between sexual desire and emotional well being, which Sondheim and Wheeler seem to suggest are irreconcilable except through a great deal of painful soul searching. That most of the show is in waltz time emphasizes the idea that this negotiation is a constant dance, and that the dance itself may be the best we can hope for.

The show presents an enormous challenge for a director and his cast who could easily lose themselves in its period trappings or in the existential despair that lies at the heart of this and most Sondheim shows. Kelly and his excellent cast dispense with that challenge like the professionals they are, and solve it by turning up to comedic volume on the production to a few decibels below camp.

In Sondheim’s universe, after all, comedy and hubris are thin scrims barely obscuring a depthless source of existential dread and insecurity. By stressing the former from just the right angle, you deepen the audience’s understanding of the latter.

This effect is on full display in Witten and Stafford’s consummate performance of “You Must Meet My Wife,” a storytelling masterpiece in which Frederik inadvertently reveals the shallowness of his relationship with his young trophy wife and Desiree overtly expresses her incredulity and disgust at his self-deception. They both know the score, but insist on doing a beautiful dance around the issue instead of addressing it directly.

In “Every Day a Little Death,” Michele Marie Roberts is masterful as the world-weary Charlotte, so many times wronged by her philandering husband Carl-Magnus (Anthony Alcocer) that she has resigned herself to a life of small victories in the face of huge disappointments.

Though the women in the show are by no means innocent, it does carry a definite and potentially off-putting whiff of the patriarchal. It makes you cringe a bit, for instance, to listen to Carl-Mangus and Frederick explicate their impossibly high standards for beddable women in “It Would Have Been Wonderful,” but Sondheim and Kelly make it easy to view the song as a critique of machismo run rampant.

Under music director Allan Paglia and his excellent orchestra, the cast acquits itself wonderfully. In addition to Witten, Stafford and Roberts, fine performances come from Pamela Rose Mangus as Madame Armfeldt on the cheeky song “Liaisons,” the slightly-too-campy Alcocer on “In Praise of Women” and Amy Jakiel as Petra on the heartbreaking if extraneous song “The Miller’s Son.” Charmagne Chi, Robert Cooke and Faith Wahl also excel in minor roles.

The show, though for the most part expertly plotted and paced, runs a bit long and suffers from afew too many pieces of musical comic relief. The comedy, after all, is everywhere in Sondheim’s score and in his lyrics. On the Andrews stage as in life, the comedy is inextricable from the pain – an understanding that makes this show, and especially this production, a remarkable success.

“A little Night Music” – Send in the clowns

SEND IN THE CLOWNS, a review by Anthony Chase, ARTVOICEA Little Night Music beautifully played at Irish Classical Theatre Company

Elegant and sophisticated adults behaving like children on a Scandinavian night is the set up for A Little Night Music, the musical now being performed by the Irish Classical Theatre Company. Composer Stephen Sondheim has said that when he, book writer Hugh Wheeler, and director Hal Prince staged the original production in 1973, they had one thought on their minds: “A Little Night Music was all about having a hit!”

Sondheim and Prince’s previous Broadway collaboration, the artistically triumphant Follies, co-directed and choreographed by Michael Bennett, had been a box office flop in 1971, despite winning seven Tony Awards.

With A Little Night Music, the team would have their hit, and Sondheim would score the only pop hit of his celebrated career with the Judy Collins recording of “Send in the Clowns,” which won a Grammy as Song of the Year in 1975.

Based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film comedy, Smiles of a Summer Night, the musical tells the story of a middle aged attorney, Fredrik Egerman, married to a teenaged virgin who is reluctant to consummate their marriage. In his frustration, Egerman visits his former lover, Desiree Armfeldt, a famed and glamorous actress, now reduced to touring to minor towns. Sensing that Egerman’s sexless marriage provides an opportunity to reignite her former romance, Desiree asks her mother, the spectacularly wealthy Madame Armfeldt to invite the Egermans to her chateau for a weekend in the country. Complications ensue when Desiree’s current lover, an intensely jealous and not very bright count arrives by surprise, with his wife; and when Fredrik’s grown son, Henrik reveals that he is in love with his young stepmother.

The intertwining complications are hilariously tangled but very easy to follow. The score, comprised entirely of waltzes, is luscious and propelled forward by a chorus of servants who comment on and punctuate the action.

The Irish Classical Theatre production under the direction of Chris Kelly and musical direction of Allan Paglia with choreography by Robert Cooke is entirely delightful—elegant, charming, and wonderfully humorous at every turn.

The cast is uniformly appealing. Matt Witten, as Fredrik Egerman is the rock that serves as a solid foundation for the production. He sings beautifully. His acting is, as ever, perfection. As Desiree Armfeldt, Jenn Stafford has a genius for making audiences fall in love with her. She, too, possesses a lovely singing voice which she deploys for maximum emotional and comic impact on this occasion. These two singing, “You Must Meet My Wife” is a highlight among many highlights.

Michele Benzin is particularly satisfying, giving one of her finest performances ever as Countess Charlotte Malcolm, a woman who cannot help but love her louse of a husband. When the frustrated spouses, Witten as Fredrik and Benzin are Charlotte are paired, the chemistry is hysterical.

Pamela Rose Mangus is surprisingly good as Madame Armfeldt, a role for which she is too young, but which she assays, nonetheless with expert finesse and perfect comic timing. She is particularly adept at landing the grand old lady’s withering one-liners.

As jealous and conceited Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, Anthony Alcocer—who specializes in cartoons of the irredeemably evil and the cluelessly arrogant—easily reaches into the latter bag of tricks on this occasion, resurrecting some of the crowd-pleasing antics of his similarly clueless Aldolpho from last year’s The Drowsy Chaperone.

Renee Landrigan and Ben Caldwell are very enjoyable and appealing paired as young and inexperienced Anne and Henrik. Young Faith Walh acquits herself capably as Desiree’s daughter, Fredrika Armfeldt.

Amy Jakiel gives a strong and lusty performance as the knowing and determined maid, Petra, landing “The Miller’s Son,” an anthem to personal fulfillment through marriage, resoundingly.

For the most part, the production staged by Kelly and choreographed by Cooke, moves graciously through the circular space of the Andrews Theatre. There are moments when the dead ends of a theater in the round elude them, as in the staging of Madame Armfeldt’s “Liaisons,” which fails to conquer the challenge of a wheel chair, for a solo number, in the round. On the whole, however, the fluidity of the round space proves to be an asset for this elegant and lovely production. With a set by Kenneth Shaw and costumes by Lise Harty, the production looks appropriately beautiful.

Elegant night music

Stephen Sondheim’s A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC elegantly opened the Irish Classical Theatre’s 25th season. Based on Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” this production of the 1973 Tony Award winning musical demonstrates everything that is right about this well established company. Attempting a large musical can be vexing in the relatively small space of the Andrews Theatre, but any worries of being pared down can be cast aside. The immediate intimacy of the theatre worked beautifully for this romantic tale.

Director Chris Kelly has triumphed in seamlessly weaving his finessed stage direction with Robert Cooke’s lilting choreography. Staging a musical in the round is quite a challenge, and Kelly has a great eye for stage pictures, so no seat in the audience is ever looking at someone’s back for long. His direction was graceful and had the actors looking fantastic in their movements. The opening “Night Waltz” introduced us to the entire cast, effortlessly waltzing while interchanging partners, thus offering a glimpse of the drama that would unfold.

Set in the turn of the 20th century Sweden, we meet a middle aged actress Desiree, her family and her many amours. The sophisticated book by Hugh Wheeler tells us of many tristes, where intertwined love affairs become tangled with family matters. Sondheim’s glorious score is based on the 3/4 time waltz figure and it employs a chorus of Liebeslieder singers who comment on the action, while also acting as servants. Their difficult music borders on operatic at times, and they seemed poised for the challenge.

Although appearing too young for the role of Desiree, actress Jenn Stafford embodied the character with appropriate grand gestures of a great stage actress, and her clear singing voice was well suited for her show stopping “Send in the Clowns.” Her lover of many years ago, Fredrik Egerman, was played by Matt Witten. Witten’s baritone shone in his Act I number, “You Must Meet My Wife,” one of Sondheim’s most brilliant expository songs, with biting commentary supplied by Desiree. The relationship between Stafford and Witten was playful and the two had a palpable energy of their past love.

Frederik’s teen age second wife, Anne, is played by the lovely Renee Landrigan. Her giggly, yet pouty nature was perfect for the role, although the upper reaches of the score sometimes taxed her. Ben Caldwell, as Fredrik’s son Henrik, was convincing as the frustrated young man who is constantly being put off and has problems with his misplaced sexual energy. The ACT I trio of “Now,” “Later,” and “Soon” brilliantly uses Sondheim’s complex writing to communicate the inner feelings of the three. With this challenging music, Caldwell later suffered from some minor intonation problems in ACT II.

Stage veteran Pamela Rose Mangus assumed the role of Desiree’s aged mother, Madame Armfeldt, after playing the part of Desiree in 1993. Written for Hermione Gingold, and in the most recent Broadway revival played by Angela Lansbury and then Elaine Stritch, this juicy role is full of sage wisdom and biting one liners. Mangus delivered the hypnotic “Liaisons” with ease and reminiscence of her past affairs with royalty. With Desiree often touring with theatrical productions, Madame Armfeldt assumes the role of mother to Desiree’s young daughter, Fredrika, played by the charming child actor Faith Walh.

Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Anthony Alcocer) is Desiree’s most recent lover. As his name implies, he is a power hungry ego maniac. Alcocer was hammy and self absorbed, offering good comic timing to his strong vocals. His wife, Charlotte, played by Michele Marie Roberts, is a juicy role of the bitter wife who is not resigned to being cheated upon. Her duet with Anne, “Everyday A Little Death” was well sung and lent pathos to the two ladies despair over their cheating husband. Roberts cunningly guides young Anne towards revenge against her husband’s lover, climaxing in the brilliant Act I finale “A Weekend in the Country.”

Ladies maid Petra (Amy Jakel) is given the 11 o’clock number of “The Miller’s Son.” Jakel coped well with the too brisk tempo of this wordy song and was great as the lusty country girl who makes advances at any available pair of pants.

The simple set by Kenneth Shaw was delicately lit by lighting designer Brian Cavanagh. The visual highlight of this production was the glorious period costumes, designed by Lise Harty. Ms. Harty’s attention to detail was spot on, most notably in the ACT II costumes with the entire cast dressed in shades of white and cream, as well as some handsome car coats for the gentlemen. Also of note were Desiree’s ACT I entrance gown and hat, worn during “The Glamorous Life.” The 4 piece combo, led by Music Director Allan Paglia, was efficient for the small space but could have benefitted from a few more strings to fill out the lush original orchestrations of Jonathan Tunick.

Wheeler and Sondheim’s musical came at a time when the formulaic musical comedy of the 50’s and 60’s was wavering, and theatre scores became more complex due to innovative writing by this composer. Sondheim would write COMPANY(1970) and FOLLIES (1971), both dealing with issues of middle age and coping with challenging relationships. He would ultimately solidify his own distinct musical sound through these 3 seminal works. With Irish Classical Theatre’s high production values, excellent cast, and thoughtful direction, this production of Stephen Sondheim’s classic musical is not to be missed.

Review by Michael Rabice |

‘A wonderful piece of entertainment’

Irish Classical Theatre Company jumpstarts the 2015 theatre season with A Little Night Music, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler. Based on an Ingmar Bergman film titled Smiles of A Summer Night, the ICTC production, directed by local stage veteran Chris Kelly, follows the film closely.

. . . a wonderful piece of entertainment. . .

The story centers on Fredrik Egerman, an older lawyer married 11 months to 18­ year­old Anne, a flighty virgin who promises to consummate their marriage soon. Fredrik has a son Henrik, much closer in age to Anne than his father. Henrik is also a virgin and having trouble, even with advances from saucy maid Petra, getting the deed done. Fredrik meets up with his old flame Desiree, a road weary actress, and the two get caught in the act by Desiree’s married boyfriend, Carl­-Magnus, a jealous military officer. So jealous, in fact, that Magnus explains to his wife Charlotte how enraged he is and demands that she approach Anne and clue her into Fredrik’s infidelity. Eventually, they all wind up at Desiree’s mother Madame Armfeldt’s country estate to settle their squabbles and find serenity in their chaotic lives.

Once again ICTC brings in the best talent possible, showcasing some of the strongest voices in Buffalo theatre. Jenn Stafford, as Desiree, and Matt Witten, as Fredrik, plumb the depths of passion and regret throughout the play, interchanging roles of hunter and hunted as they sort out their fond memories and what-­ifs. The two leads support Sondheim’s strong songwriting with stellar singing during notable numbers ‘You Must Meet My Wife’ and ‘Send in the Clowns’. Both actors are more than capable of emoting the double meaning of the Sondheim lyrics.

Anthony Alcocer plays Carl-­Magnus as a proud peacock, strutting around stage spreading his feathers, admiring the world he has built for himself. Magnus is so bold he even talks to his wife Charlotte about his love affairs. Nothing about his character is redeeming or noble, yet Alcocer infuses just enough over the top silliness to keep his regal snootiness in check. At one point, he utters, “A civilized man can tolerate his wife’s infidelities, but his mistress’?

Michele Marie Roberts, as Carl­-Magnus’ wife Charlotte, steals several scenes, and late in the first act breaks few hearts with the song ‘Every Day a Little Death’, about the struggles of a life married to the philandering Carl­-Magnus.

Amy Jakiel as the seductive housemaid Petra, Pamela Rose Mangus as Madame Armfeldt, and Faith Walh as Fredrika Armfeldt, daughter to Desiree, all contribute to the themes present in the production.

All the women in the play are seeking some sort of common ground with the time and place they are stuck in. The innocent Fredrika, the naive Anne, the bold Petra, the confused Charlotte, the desperate Desiree and the bitter Madame Armfeldt combine to form a tempestuous bundle, each trying to deal with their lot in life ­ surviving in a man’s world. A song in the second act, ‘It Would Have Been Wonderful’, sung by Carl-Magnus and Fredrik, sums up the play in its entirety and showcases the wit of Sondheim’s music. The two men on stage sing about how it is clearly Desiree’s fault for being so wonderful that the men cannot resist her. The wonderful music, smart lyrics and excellent source material combine to enhance the struggle of the female players and make the men out to be more buffoonish than bad.

Director Chris Kelly expertly utilizes the cozy theatre in the round space at ICTC. The multiple entrances, constantly moving people on stage, and low­key set design by Kenneth Shaw all contributed to Kelly’s direction, creating an easy flow and establishing a tight rhythm. Special mention goes to the wonderful costumes worn by all the cast. Lise Harty, the Costume Designer, has set the bar high for future ICTC productions.

The four piece orchestra, led by Music Director Allan Paglia, fills the room with the lush sounds of Sondheim’s waltzes, significant in spirit to the physical and emotional movements of the main players. A chorus, dressed as maids and butlers, accompanies the main players on stage throughout the production, adding overlapping vocals and reinforcing the themes present.

The combination of humor, sadness, mystery, romance and desperation creates a compelling production of A Little Night Music. The onstage and offstage talent at Irish Classical has delivered a wonderful piece of entertainment that should be seen by lovers of the Bergman film, Sondheim’s music and theatre goers alike.

Advisory: Adult themes ­ implied sexual encounters.

Review by Anthony Vitello, Jr. | NY Theatre Guide