A Little Night Music with Phillipa Soo at the Berkshire Theatre Group
by Nancy Salz, July, 2014
A Little Night Music
At the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Colonial Theatre, Pittsfield, MA, through July 19
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick
Direction by Ethan Heard
Music Direction by Nathan Dame
Choreography by Alex Sanchez
Kate Baldwin – Countess Charlotte Malcolm
Monique Barbee – Petra
Matt Dengler – Henrik Egerman
Gregg Edelman – Fredrik Egerman
Emma Foley – Fredrika Armfeldt
Penny Fuller – Madame Armfeldt
Maureen O’Flynn – Desiree Armfeldt
Graham Rowat – Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm
Phillipa Soo – Anne Egerman
It has been said that the sign of a good musical is when the audience leaves the theatre humming a tune from the show. Not so with Stephen Sondheim. His ability to dazzle us with his lyrics, his verbal brilliance and wit, causes us to ponder his lyrics on the way up the aisle and wonder how he pulls it all off. He said in his book Finishing the Hat that he used A Little Night Music to show off. Take, for example, the song “The Miller’s Son.”
It’s a very short road
From the pinch and the punch
To the paunch and the pouch
And the pension.
In 1988 when Diane Sawyer asked him on 60 Minutes how he came up with such extraordinary lyrics, he said he used a thesaurus … as if any of us thesaurus owners could write such an alliterative series!
At the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, MA through July 19, A Little Night Music is receiving a production worthy of its involving lyrics, magnificent score, and poignant (and sometimes hilarious) book. With one exception the assembled cast and chorus superbly acts and beautifully sings the complex characters in this classic musical.
The story, based on the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night is about Fredrik Egerman (Gregg Edelman), a man in his mid-forties; his 18-year old wife Anne (Phillipa Soo); his son Henrik (Matt Dengler), studying for the ministry and pining for Anne. Because his wife won’t consummate their marriage even after eleven months, Fredrik seeks out his former lover Desiree Armfeldt (Maureen O’Flynn), an actress in town for a play. During their tryst, her lover, Count Carl-Magnus Malcom (Graham Rowat), catches them together. His long suffering wife, the Countess Charlotte (Kate Baldwin), is dispatched to tell Fredrik’s wife about her husband’s infidelity. The entire cast of characters, plus Anne’s maid Petra (Monique Barbee), all convene for a weekend at the country home of Desiree’s mother Madame Armfeldt (Penny Fuller) and her granddaughter, Desiree’s daughter Fredrika (Emma Foley), where the couples all finally sort themselves out.
Edelman has a gorgeous voice and fine enunciation — important with the Sondheim lyrics his character Fredrik sings. Fuller is a wise, canny and understanding Madame Armfeldt. The talented Soo is believable and charming as Anne. Kate Baldwin brings down the house with her sharp one-liners. Rowat is tall, dashing and supremely egotistical as the count.
Matt Dengler is outstanding as Henrik — passionate, gobsmacked in love with Anne. The young Monique Barbee has already been an understudy at the Metropolitan Opera. Hers was easily the best voice in the production.
The only exception to the uniformly excellent cast is Maureen O’Flynn as Desiree. For some reason — self-consciousness, perhaps — Ms. O’Flynn’s spoken lines are as flat as her singing is emotionally soaring. Desiree is a sophisticated and sensual character, the daughter of a courtesan, who has had many lovers herself. Even in a low cut dress revealing much cleavage, Ms. O’Flynn comes across as merely sweet, countrified rather than worldly. But when she sang “Send in the Clowns” with appropriate pathos and irony, one could almost forgive her disappointing acting.
The backdrop for the first act, complete with movable sheer curtains to delineate scenes, was a blue damask design, rich and soft at the same time. For the second act, the country mansion with glowing room lights formed the backdrop; it set the scene, as did the suggestion of trees in a forest. The scenic designs by Reid Thompson beautifully lit by Oliver Wason and costumes, mostly in purple and white hues, by David Murin, transport the audience to turn-of-the-century, upper-class Sweden.
An excellent eleven piece orchestra was led by Nathan Dame.
With a poignant yet snappy book by Hugh Wheeler and direction by Ethan Heard, this A Little Night Music is an early Sondheim feast presented with great skill and love by the Berkshire Theatre Group.