Theater: One for the books

A.C.T.’s ‘A Little Night Music’ more than a little impressive

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Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Paolo Montalban) caresses Desiree Armfeldt (Karen Ziemba) in A.C.T.'s 'A Little Night Music.' Photo by Kevin Berne

by Charles Brousse

If you’re hungering to see one of the best late-20th century American musicals (arguably the best) presented with that unmistakeable Broadway panache—but without the effort and expense of a trip to Manhattan—here is your golden opportunity. In an extended run that closes on June 21, San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.) hosts a superb production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music that should satisfy your craving—and then some.

Truth be told, this show’s position in the pantheon of American musical theater is something of an enigma. Although the 1973 Broadway debut received six Tonys (including Best Musical), along with numerous other critics’ awards, and seemed to please audiences once they were in the theater, it ran for only 601 performances—fairly brief by New York standards, and its revivals have been similarly limited.

So, what explains the disconnect? My guess is that it’s mostly a public perception that even though the creative team is 100 percent native born, the show is not American enough. Certainly, its formative influences are foreign. Hugh Wheeler’s book and Sondheim’s lyrics closely mirror the content of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s acclaimed 1955 film, Smiles of a Summer Night, a sophisticated romantic comedy in which lust, love and despair intertwine among a group of affluent Swedes gathered on a country estate for the annual Midsummer celebration. The musical’s title is a direct English translation of “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” the popular name given to Mozart’s “Serenade in G Major.” Sondheim’s score, with its unusual reliance on minor key three-quarter time waltz tempos has antecedents in Ravel, Weill and other European composers.

A second damaging perception has been that Night Music is lugubrious to the point of boredom. From what I’ve read, director Harold Prince’s original Broadway version was exceptionally slow-paced, and others have followed his example. This extended to the show’s hit song, “Send in the Clowns,” which potential ticket-buyers took as a signal that they would be in for a long evening.

Sophisticated? Foreign? Slow-moving? That’s not what Americans look for in a genre they think they own!

The American Conservatory Theater has done a number of things to restore the sparkle that was lost when Bergman’s comedy moved to the stage. First and foremost, director Mark Lamos keeps the action moving at a nice clip—brisk, but not to the point that the underlying poignancy is compromised. Music director Wayne Barker adds a vital dimension by keeping his orchestral tempos a bit livelier than usual. Together, the two blend to make the show look and sound more like the dynamic Sondheim of Company than a slow-moving Chekhovian knockoff.

All of the production elements are of the highest quality. They include an impressive (and flexible) scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez that utilizes every inch of the company’s capacious stage, an elegant lighting plot by Robert Wierzel, an assortment of attractive costumes from designer Candice Donnelly and a live (though hidden) group of seven instrumentalists whose rich sound belies their small number.

Of the large cast of actors/singers, given my space limitations, I can say very little, except that they are thorough professionals—even 14-year-old Brigid O’Brien, who cut her performance teeth in Marin’s Mountain Play—and several have extensive experience on top New York stages. Karen Ziemba’s quietly introspective delivery of “Clowns” is just what the song requires, and Marissa McGowan brings down the house with her defiant assertion of independence in “The Miller’s Son.” In the end, though, everyone involved has a part in making this production of A Little Night Music one for the history books.

Charles Brousse can be reached at cbrousse@att.net.

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