A musical at South Coast Repertory is a rarity, and in the case of the currently
running A Little Night Music, it is a cause for celebration–well cast, beautifully
performed and (especially in the second act) gorgeous to look at.

Stefan Novinski, a director better known for his straight plays—Around the World
in 80 Days (Colony Theater), The Skin of Our Teeth (Evidence Room), and The
Time of Our Lives (Open Fist)—was also responsible for 2005’s exhilarating J.O.B.
the Hip-Hopera.  Here he takes a more traditional approach to musical theater,
staging A Little Night Music like a straight play with musical interludes. Though
at least for one friend of mine this approach didn’t work, I found it quite
successful.  The dialog scenes play like something out of Chekhov, and because
the cast is made up of some of our best musical theater talent, the singing is
consistently lovely.

A Little Night Music is, of course, Stephen Sondheim’s 1973 “waltz musical,” all
songs being written in three quarter time. Based on Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of
a Summer Night, it features a cast of romantically mismatched characters who
meet for “a weekend in the country,” at the end of which almost every one of
them has paired up with someone other than the person he/she arrived with.

We meet these characters in the opening number, in a series of beautifully
staged tableaux. There’s glamorous stage star Desiree (Stephanie Zimbalist), her
former lover Fredrik (Mark Jacoby), Fredrik’s “child bride” Anne (Carolann Sanita)
and his sexually frustrated son Henrik (Joe Farrell), and Desiree’s current lover Carl-
Magnus (Damon Kirsche) and his disillusioned wife Charlotte (Amanda
Naughton). There’s also Desiree’s mother Madame Armfeldt (Teri Ralston) and
teenage daughter Fredrika (Katie Horwitch), as well as the saucy servant girl
Petra (Misty Cotton).  Enacting a number of peripheral characters and serving
as a kind of Greek chorus are the quintet made up of Christopher Carothers
(Five Course Love), Karen Culliver, Kevin McMahon (The Full Monty), Ann Marie
Lee, and Tracy Lore (The Full Monty).  

This was my second A Little Night Music. The first one, sixteen years ago, featured
Broadway’s original Desiree (Glynis Johns) as Madame Arnfeldt (a role originated
by Hermione Gingold) and, coincidentally, South Coast Rep’s Madame Arnfeldt,
Teri Ralston, was also part of that original Broadway cast, in the role currently
played by Culliver.  Ralston brings a crusty quality to Madame Armfeldt as well as
a fine singing voice (unlike either Johns or Gingold), which adds greatly to
Madame Armfeldt’s signature number Liasons, in which she recalls her randy
younger days.

Desiree is a star, and here she is appropriately portrayed by TV star Stephanie
Zimbalist, who, in the years since Remington Steele, has proved herself an
accomplished stage actress.  Zimbalist possesses the requisite glamour for the
role, and she is also a good comedienne, which serves her especially well in a
comic scene involving Jacoby, Kirsche, and a soaking wet suit of clothes.  A Lttle
Night Music’s most famous song, Send in the Clowns, is Desiree’s, written to be
performed by an actress who was not a strong singer. Neither is Zimbalist, but no
matter, she sing/acts the song memorably, and receives deserved applause.

Damon Kirsche is about as handsome a leading man as we have in musical
theater, but he is also great at poking fun of his image, as he does in his comic
soliloquy In Praise of Women.  (“She wouldn’t…therefore they didn’t… So then it
wasn’t…not unless it…would she? She doesn’t…God knows she needn’t…therefore
it’s not.”)  Mark Jacoby, star of half a dozen Broadway musicals, is a suitably stuffy
Fredrik, with a gorgeous voice.  Kirsche and Jacoby’s duet It Would Have Been  
Wonderful is a special delight, slightly reminiscent of the two princes’ duet Agony
in Sondheim’s Into the Woods, each man being so full of himself. (“If she’d only
been vicious… If she’d acted abused… Or a bit too delicious… Or been even
slightly confused… If she had only been sulky– Or bristling– Or bulky– Or bruised–
It would have been wonderful.”)

Carolann Sanita is a giggly, giddy Anne, Joe Farrell is an amusingly frustrated
Henrik, Amanda Naughton brings touching poignancy to Every Day a Little
Death, and Misty Cotton (The Last Five Years) is an earthy, slightly tomboyish
Petra, whose 11th hour The Miller’s Son is a showstopper.  The “Greek chorus”
harmonize beautifully, and have fun playing servants, guests, etc.

Sibyl Wickersheimer has designed an appropriately Swedish-wood toned first act
set depicting the homes of the various characters, and in the second act, a
woodsy outdoor set complemented by Christopher Akerlind’s exquisite lighting.  
There’s a rosy-gold glow to everything as the Swedish summer “white night”
progresses, the nighttime sun sending its light through the trees, casting pastel
shadows on the ground. Shigeru Yaji’s costumes are richly elegant and
character and period appropriate.  Drew Dalzell’s sound design is top notch.

Musical director Dennis Castellano, leading a seven piece orchestra, brings to life
Sonheim’s delicate melodies. Choreographer Ken Roht has, as would be
expected, gotten his cast waltzing to Sondheim’s melodies, but there’s also a
delightful bit of hand choreography to A Weekend in the Country (I couldn’t
help recalling Hand Jive from Grease, even though the hand movements are
quite different, and definitely more refined, here.)

Stephen Sondheim shows have become a musical theater staple, popular
everywhere from community theaters to scaled-down 99-seat productions. But
it’s always a special pleasure when they get a fully staged large theater
production.  South Coast Rep may not do musicals often, but when they do
them, they do them right.  A Little Night Music is well worth a drive down to the

Segerstrom Stage, South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.

–Steven Stanley
September 12, 2007
Photos: Henry Di Rocco

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