Theater Review: A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (42nd Street Moon)

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by Harvey Perr on November 11, 2021

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


Any theater company that decides to produce the entire body of work created by a single artist, like, say, aiming to produce every play Shakespeare ever wrote, deserves attention for its bravery and intelligence. The 42nd Street Moon, San Francisco’s home for musical theater, has promised to present every musical written by Stephen Sondheim, and I can’t think of a happier confluence between a theater’s intentions and one of the greatest artists of the musical theater. But is it enough to fulfill a dream without making sure each production is worthy of that artist?

William Giammona as Count Carl-Magnus and Katrina Lauren McGraw as Charlotte.
William Giammona as Count Carl-Magnus, Alison Ewing as Desiree, and Martin Bell as Fredrik.

The Mozartean A Little Night Music is one of Sondheim’s most complex and sublime works and one that presents some difficult challenges for a group of well-intentioned amateurs. And it saddens me to report that the 42nd Street Moon production falls far short of its aims.

 Katrina Lauren McGraw as Charlotte and Samantha Rose Cárdenas as Anne.
Chloe Fong as Fredrika.

Where it succeeds most effectively is in the music direction of Daniel Thomas, whose invisible but dominant musicians respond with all the sensitivity and wit that Sondheim’s score deserves. Because it can’t see the actors on stage, the “orchestra” sometimes overwhelms them, a small matter when one considers the splendor of a score written almost entirely in 3/4 time and how beautifully it is performed. It is nice to hear that Sondheim, noted above all for the brilliance of his lyrics, can be appreciated for the audacity of his musical invention.

Cindy Goldfield as Mdm. Armfeldt.
Shai Wolf as Henrik.

But Sondheim’s lyrics are, if course, what propels the play — based on Ingmar Bergman’s exquisite farce Smiles of a Summer Night — and informs us of who the characters are, and must go hand in hand with his inventive score, and here is where this production fails too much of the time. The music tended to swallow up the words, a definite no-no in Sondheim’s world, and when we can’t hear the lyrics from the fifth row of a small theater, we miss so much that tells us about the characters and what triggers the farcical situations. I was specifically confused by Cindy Goldfield, who seemed a natural for the role of Madame Armfeldt, the mother of the play’s central character, Desiree, and the dowager who holds sway over the crowd; she is open and clearly possesses some humor about herself, but her song, perhaps the wittiest in the score, “Liaisons,” seemed to have been whispered rather than sung and all those gloriously funny anecdotes about her past, and which mock the tastes of her present, were lost and, with it, any real understanding of who Madame Armfeldt is. And it was truly special to cast the gender-fluid Shai Wolf as Henrik, the brooding young cello-playing son of the play’s central male character, Fredrik Egerman, but unfortunately, despite the fact that Wolf is a very promising actor and performer, this reviewer could not understand one word of what was either sung or spoken. This was particularly distressing because there were no hearing devices available at the theater.

 Stephanie Rhoads as Mrs. Anderssen, Jacqueline De Muro as Mrs. Segstrom,
and Mark Robinson as Mr. Erlanson.
Joshua Gonzales as Mr. Lindquist and Jennifer Mitchell as Mrs. Nordstrom.

While it was a general truth that the performers were lax about the lyrics and about projection, there were, of course, some splendid exceptions to the rule. The sextet of singers had clarion elegance and would have better served the score if they weren’t choreographed by Allison Paraiso-Silicani to move around so much, further evidence that the lyrics alone weren’t being trusted. And Trixie Aballa gave as much to her great little aria about desire vs. reality — “The Miller’s Son” — as the song asked for. And William Giammona, playing one of Desiree’s suitors, had great presence, a wonderful roar of a voice (so that every word could be heard and which may explain why his “In Praise of Women” got the most laughter of the evening), and he seemed to best appreciate and convey the sly wit of the entire play. And the sheer magnificence of Katrina Lauren McGraw cannot go unnoticed and, besides, she gets to sing my own personal favorite of the Sondheim score, “Every Day A Little Death.” And, of course, Alison Ewing, who plays Desiree, gave a beautiful rendition of the musical’s best-known song, “Send in the Clowns,” sung more as a kind of personal meditation rather than as plea to a former lover to understand their current situation, an interpretation that I won’t argue with, because Ms. Ewing commits herself to it so marvelously.

 Alison Ewing as Desiree, Chloe Fong as Fredrika, Cindy Goldfield as Mdm. Armfeldt,
and Jack O′Reilly as Frid.
Martin Bell as Fredrik and Alison Ewing as Desiree.

The rest is a shambles. Brandon Jackson’s direction is loose and unfocused. Mark Mendelson’s set design conveys very little about where we are. Sweden? Well, if you say so. Interesting lighting in an open space might have created more cinematic fluidity, as was Sondheim’s intention. Ashley Garlick’s costumes suggest the 1920s with no real reason for the update. The cast is mostly serviceable, though Chloe Fong, in the role of Desiree’s daughter, had a really charming presence, which made one want to see more of her. The sense that it was taking place in Sweden and on midsummer night when the sun never sets, both important to the mechanics of the farce, seems not to have bothered anyone involved in this production. Still, any Stephen Sondheim musical play should be seen — 42nd Street Moon is totally right to invest in that notion — even if there is some crank in the audience who hoped A Little Night Music would be brilliant instead of merely competent.

Trixie Aballa as Petra and Samantha Rose Cárdenas as Anne.

photos by Ben Krantz Studio

A Little Night Music
42nd Street Moon
Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson St in San Francisco
ends on November 21, 2021
for tickets, call 415.255.8207 or visit 42nd St Moon

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