For many, the world of composer Stephen Sondheim is sometimes a difficult one. His lyrics for the ever-popular “West Side Story” were joined in brilliant collaboration with the passionate and melodic music of Leonard Bernstein. But there are times when Sondheim composes music that is less readily appealing on first hearing. His music and lyrics, while often sophisticated and perhaps more mind bending, can often seem less “catchy” than what one might associate with the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein. This can make it difficult to fill the theater for some of Sondheim’s work. And so, a badge of courage is awarded to director, Ellen Ketchum, and the Montgomery College Theatre Department for their often-classy current production of Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music.” Most fans of popular Broadway musicals would tell you they are familiar with the show’s biggest hit song, “Send in the Clowns.” Fewer could tell you what show the song was from. And fewer still could name a second song from the same show. But college is about education, and this show was an education for both cast and audience.
Let’s begin with the exceptional set from Scenic Designer, Chris Thomas. It would have passed nicely on Broadway with its dramatic symmetry and silhouette cutout of a beautiful European home and garden in the 1930’s. Enhancing the set, there was sumptuous back lighting (Designer, David Kerr) that began with a luscious rose color to greet the arriving audience. Glamour is everywhere in this world inhabited by the European upper class. And speaking of elegance, the black-tie atmosphere features fabulous costumes from designers, Lauren Gibson, Deborah Borchers, and the local Tux Shop. Musical Director and talented pianist, Lee Barrow, assembled a fine orchestra including Jan Cole, Kathy Larsen and Bob Stiffler. Neatly placed backstage, the orchestra was at perfect volumes and amazingly in sync with the singers on stage.
Which brings us to the music. Again, we’re not talking catchy tunes here. There is a kind of melancholy to the music. For the uninitiated, the lyrics are sometimes hard to discern and undoubtedly difficult to sing. I suspect it is the kind of show that could best be enjoyed by those who first become familiar with both the words and music. None of these difficulties intimidated this student cast that does a remarkable job of rising to the challenging occasion. Even as the characters emerge, amid the pleasant harmonies of “Night Waltz,” it is at first difficult to know how they are all connected to one another as they drift in and out of chic salons with wine glasses in hand. And speaking of waltzing, choreographer, Amber Gensbigler, has designed some lovely dances for the cast.
Bit by bit, we learn that mature Fredrik Egerman (warmly portrayed by Christopher Alan Thomas) is in a “chaste” 11-month second marriage to the naïve and much younger 18-year old Anne (sweetly played by Sarah Maddux). Fredrik’s grown son, Henrik, (humorously characterized by Stephen Bollom) is an overly serious student of religion who soon finds he is falling in love with his new stepmother. Frederik, meanwhile, has a longstanding affection for his former lover, the actress Desiree (coyly portrayed by Ellen Perez). Somehow (I’ll not say how) the unmarried Desiree has a daughter, Fredrika (charming Alison Roche), and a gallant lover in Count Carl (David Kerr) who is married to the devoted Charlotte, played with droll jealousy by Therese Catherine Ellis. Do my readers need a Soap Opera Digest for all this? Ellis, by the way, overcomes some of the show’s microphone problems to deliver a solid rendition of “Every Day a Little Death.”
Talented Kerr, with his rich voice and commanding stage presence, reminded me of Howard Keel’s bold brashness in “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.” In an amusing turn as Petra, the maid, pretty Erin Roche, projects a joyful glow that comes across the footlights very well. Her brisk and clear singing in Act II was exceptional, especially her “Miller’s Son” marriage fantasy as her graceful gestures embraced the audience. Petra flirts freely and has eyes for Frid (a comical Seth Radcliff), the houseboy whose main task is pushing a chair behind Fredrika’s grandma, Madame Armfeldt. (An articulate, clear-voiced, and often hilarious Terry Woods was very well aged). And helping to guide us through all this confusion is a quintet of “Liebeslieder Singers” (Donna Eckhardt, Lorne S. Kelley, Adam Ranney, Lindsey Mackie, and Jenni Nabors). They sing beautifully to link the scenes, but there are times when Sondheim’s unpredictable melodies make it difficult to pick up every detail in the lyrics. The interconnected songs and complex counterpoints of “Now’ (Fredrik), “Later (Hendrik),” and “Soon” (Anne), were well done by all.
I mustn’t spoil the “Weekend in the Country” that brings the characters all together in Act II. But you can look forward to a tender “Send in the Clowns” from Perez, and, as Grandma Armfeldt ironically observes: “There’s a great deal going on in this house tonight!”
(The Courier 11.23.03)