Theater Review: A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC IN CONCERT (David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center; World Premiere of Jonathan Tunick’s Orchestrations for Large Ensembles)

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by Paola Bellu on June 28, 2024

in Concerts / Events,Theater-New York

A SUMMER NIGHT THAT SMILES THREE HUNDRED TIMES

Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s delightful musical A Little Night Music is is an adaptation of the Bergman’s 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night, a droll story of sexual musical chairs among the middle- and lower-classes in provincial Sweden at the turn of the last century. Three generations of characters assemble and reassemble romantic relationships until everyone is reasonably paired up at the end. But along the way there are shouting matches, tears, trysts, and even a game of Russian roulette.

Jin Ha, Marsha Mason and Addie Harrington
Ron Raines and Susan Graham

Sondheim conveys this complex sexual merry-go-round with some of his most brilliant and exquisite lyrics. The only hit to come out of the score is “Send in the Clowns” (whose international popularity mystified the composer), but his graceful quasi-operetta is a continuous flow of comic, wise, dramatic, and romantic songs.

Jason Gotay, Shuler Hensley, Susan Graham, Marsha Mason,
Ruthie Ann Miles, Ron Raines, Kerstin Anderson

Attending A Little Night Music on a hot breezy summer night at yesterday’s opening was already a treat, but this World Premiere concert version from lifelong Sondheim collaborator Jonathan Tunick, re-orchestrating for a large ensemble, was a wonder. Led by Mr. Tunick, the 53 gifted musicians of  Orchestra of St. Luke’s (nearly double the players of the original 1973 Broadway version) backed up an all-star cast directed by Marc Bruni. It only plays through Sunday at Lincoln Center‘s David Geffen Hall; if you miss it, you will be missing the very best of musical theater.

Jonathan Tunick

Tunick, at 86, just won his second Tony for the updated Merrily We Roll Along orchestrations. So it was with very high expectations that this production would not disappoint. It didn’t. In fact, it actually raised the bar. Performed by master actors, Sondheim’s lilting waltz-driven score is now heard in all its symphonic glory. I always wished we saw the orchestra more often in theaters because it is so fundamental to the experience (such as Encores! did in its recent revival of Titanic). No scenery or props were employed for this concert, but they weren’t missed; the musicians and the actors filled that void. Josh Prince choreographed, Ken Billington did the lights, and Dan Moses Schreier the sound.

Susan Graham

The story is worldly, charming, and rueful — emotions eloquently displayed by Sondheim’s score, abetted by Wheeler’s underrated book (adapted here by John Doyle). Desiree Armfeldt is a once glamorous actress who is now touring small towns in Sweden. International opera star Susan Graham fit Desiree’s personality to perfection, a woman in early middle-age who has seen much and done much, mirthful and very delightful. Graham was charismatic and comical throughout but induced chills with her yearning and expressive take on “Send in the Clowns” — the woman is a powerhouse.

Andrea Jones-Sojola, Susan Graham, Ellie Fishman

Desiree meets an old boyfriend and rekindles a love affair with Fredrik Egerman, a successful middle-aged lawyer (a mellifluous Ron Raines), who has a very young trophy wife, still a virgin after 11 months of marriage — Kerstin Anderson is brilliant as Anne, her naiveté coupled with a giddy approach that made her truly endearing. Fredrik also has a frustrated son, Henrik, played by glorious tenor Jason Gotay, who excelled in the difficult role of the anguished Henrik, a grouchy young man who is the butt of the older characters around him as he burns with longing. Henrik, just one year older than his stepmother Anne, is secretly in love with her.

Marsha Mason

As if written by a Mason, A Little Night Music makes much use of the number three as a motif: There are supposedly three smiles in a summer’s night (first on the young, second on fools, and third on the old); many of the duets are sung about a third party (love triangles abound); and most of the score is written in waltz time (3/4 or 6/8). One of Sondheim’s greatest pieces is the polyphonous “Now/Later/Soon” — the three parts  belong to Fredrik (“Now”), hoping his wife will finally have sex with him, Anne (“Soon”) promising her body in time while finding his touch repulsive; and Henrick (“Later”), who feels ignored by everybody. With all three singers at the same time, Sondheim’s wit and mastery shines bright.

Shuler Hensley

Desiree’s new lover Count Carl-Magnus (booming Shuler Hensley), madly jealous of the lawyer, and his wife Charlotte (Ruthie Ann Miles) decide to join, or rather barge in on, Fredrik and Desiree at the estate of Desiree’s wealthy mother Madame Armfeldt (four time Oscar nominee Marsha Mason conveying the old woman’s imperious nature, cynicism, and urbanity), a former beauty and courtesan who is often accompanied by Desiree’s daughter, her grandniece Fredrika (Addie Harrington). Petra (Cynthia Erivo) is Anne’s maid, a down-to-earth woman who falls in lust with Frid, Armfeldt’s manservant (Jin Ha). This weekend in the country now has the perfect ingredients for a disaster’s recipe.

Ruthie Ann Miles and Kerstin Anderson

Hensley throws himself into the role of the officious Carl-Magnus with lip-smacking relish. Ms. Miles is terrific as the unhappy Charlotte, trying to keep a sarcastic facade to conceal her hurt and anger over Carl-Magnus’s crass conduct. Her rendition of “Every Day a Little Death” with Ms. Anderson says everything that needs saying about loving an inattentive and insensitive husband. There is real bite and intelligence in her performance. Erivo stops the show with her stirring rendition of “The Miller’s Son,” a testament to lust at its most calculating and liberating.

Cynthia Erivo

Musically impeccable, the chorus-commenting Quintet (named “Liebeslieders” in the 1990 New York Opera production) turn their lovely melodies into a merry counterpoint to these Shakespearean mistakes of a summer night, highlighting the darker and humorous sides of romance. Under Rob Berman’s vocal direction, the opulent voices soar: Ellie Fishman is Mrs. Segstrom, Leah Horowitz is Mrs. Nordstrom, Jonathan Christopher is Mr. Erlanson, Andrea Jones-Sojola is Mrs. Anderssen, and Ross Lekites is Mr. Lindquist.

Leah Horowitz, Jonathan Christopher, Andrea Jones-Sojola, Ross Lekites, Ellie Fishman

Hilariously funny, A Little Night Music, originally directed by Harold Prince, has so many lovely well-felt moments. It’s easy, even enthralling, to sense the spell and see the smiles of this special summer night.

Jin Ha and Cynthia Erivo

photos by Joan Marcus

A Little Night Music in Concert
David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center
remaining performances:
June 27 at 8; June 28 at 8:30; June 29 at 1 & 7
ends on June 29, 2024
for tickets, call 212.721.6500 or visit A Little Night Music in Concert

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Mary Macher July 8, 2024 at 12:59 pm

I was truly looking forward to hearing this score with full orchestra. What a mess — Jonathan Tunick cannot conduct. Everyone on stage attempted to move the piece along with no success. I just couldn’t take it anymore — I left at intermission. Kudos to Ron Raines, Ruthie Ann Miles and Cynthia Erivo miraculously finding ways of landing their lines and vocals despite the turgid Tunick tempi.

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