The title of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music comes across at first as being so casual, so uneventful, so well, “little.” Yet beneath a seemingly lush, at times movie soundtrackesque, rumbles something much deeper, a darker story that unveils how meaningful what we think nothing of, can really be.
Opera Theatre of St. Louis’s production of A Little Night Music is pure magic driven largely by Isaac Mizrahi’s playful and dreamlike set (fit for any Vogue photo shoot), the luscious sounds from members of the St. Louis Symphony (an extra bravo to the clarinets and the bassoons, and of course to Stephen Lord for keeping the complex music together), the lighting by Michael Chybowski, and the team who developed the movement of the artists on stage—the clarity and honesty of the blocking and choreography made a great deal of sense.
Among the cast, I loved every moment that Christopher Dylan Herbert (Henrik Egerman) opened his mouth. He had wonderful nuance in color, breath, and line. At the end of his song “Later,” Mr. Herbert sang “Doesn’t anything begin?” with a poignancy that carried throughout the rest of the performance.
Sondheim music is hard to sing. The chromatics, the words that get all jumbled up in your mouth, the hidden meanings, the required purity of phrasing, all while acting and moving around the stage requires an enormous amount of practice, talent, and the ability to “keep control while falling apart” as is sung in the song “Perpetual Anticipation.” In general, the cast walked the fine line of musical theatre and operetta well, although there were definitely some intonation issues here and there as well as some odd sound balance concerns.
Amy Irving as Desiree Armfeldt well captured the actress’s sad cynicism tinged with bits of hope for what has passed her by. Ms. Irving delivered good comedic timing although her “singing” voice earlier in the production lacked direction or confidence. It must have been very tough for her to share a stage with singers of such high caliber. But oddly, her performance of the famous “Send in the Clowns” struck a chord of success. It’s almost as if her uneven and somewhat raspy singing voice fit perfectly with the words of the song—those that conveyed lost chances, sad smiles, and what could have or should have been. The line “Me here at last on the ground/You in mid-air” was sung knowingly, a little tiredly, and a whole lot worldly by Ms. Irving.
A Little Night Music opens with the grandmother Madame Armfeldt telling her granddaughter Fredrika about how the night smiles three times—once for the young, once for the fools, and once for the old (who know too much). Opera Theatre of St. Louis so beautifully presented those smiles to an eager audience and all the important in-betweens, the seemingly inconsequential happenings of life that add up to a lot more.
When Madame Armfeldt asks her granddaughter Fredrika, “Will you tell me what it’s all for,” Fredrika innocently responds, “It’s all there is, isn’t it?” We smile.