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Friday, 8 July 2016

Griffin Delivers Big with A Little Night Music

Yanna McIntosh as Désirée Armfeldt and Ben Carslon as
Fredrik Egerman. photo by David Hou.

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Book by Hugh Wheeler
Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick; suggested by a film by Ingmar Bergman
Originally produced and directed on Broadway by Haarold Prince
Director Gary Griffin; Musical director Franklin Brasz
Designed by Debra Hansen, Kevin Fraser (lights), Peter McBoyle (sound), John Stead (fights)
Featuring Yanna McIntosh, Cynthia Dale, Alexis Gordon

It is hard to know where to begin in describing the pleasure that is the Stratford Festival’s production of A Little Night Music. 
Gary Griffin has taken this Sondheim musical and drawn it’s tapestry of intertwined relationships with delicate. There are pairings of new lovers, unrequited lovers, lusty lovers and mature lovers. The bare bones of the story would suggest a farce – at east three love triangles to untangle - yet there are shades of hope, longing and regret hanging over them all, and surprises in almost every performance.
Alexis Gordon as Anne Egerman and Gabriel
Antonacci as Henrik Egerman. Photo by David Hou.
Anne Egerman is a very young, very naïve 18-year-old, married to the middle-aged Fredrik; call her Fredrik’s mid-life crisis.  Both are played by actors able to infuse them with a layer of self-delusion. Alexis Gordon plays captures Anne’s naivety very well, additionally giving her a hair-brushing tic and tendency to talk really fast to hide her innate nervousness, and is fantastically funny when Anne is threatened by the more seasoned lover, Désirée (A Weekend in the Country). As the husband Fredrik, Ben Carlson plays him as a straight-man, oblivious to both Anne’s deep anxiety and to Désirée's wry observances (You Must Meet My Wife). That the young Anne should end up with the heart-sick Henrik (Gabriel Antonacci) is perfectly natural, her buoyancy (Ms. Gordon’s costumes are particularly flouncy) balancing out his tendency for melancholy. Will it last? Built on young love and lust, who knows? We are not meant to care, just be happy they are happy.

Cynthia Dale as Countess Charlotte Malcolm and Juan
Chioran as Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm. Photo by David Hou.
By comparison, the Count and Countess may end up together but one wonders exactly how happy they will be. Juan Chioran plays the Count quite rigidly myopic, insensible of the hurt he causes Charlotte in speaking openly of his affair with Desiree. He makes the Count completely unlikeable, and Charlotte’s unwavering devotion to him somewhat hard to take, even though Cynthia Dale’s performance is touchingly moving. In Ms. Dale’s care, Charlotte is a woman whose despair is just underneath the surface of the bright laughter she uses to hide how brittle she is. If her husband had not rediscovered her worth (although one cannot be sure he really does), Ms. Dale’s Charlotte would surely have died of a broken heart (Every Day a Little Death).
Yanna McIntosh as Desiree Armfeldt and Ben Carlson as Fredrik
Egerman. Photo by David Hou.
Yanna McIntosh, the queen of wry, is Désirée  Armfeldt. It is only natural – Désirée is the emotional centre of the musical, and in this role, Ms. McIntosh becomes a centre of gravity for all Désirée's relationships. There looks to be a real bond between Ms. McIntosh and Kimberly-Ann Truong, playing her daughter, Fredrika; likewise there is as much familial connection with Rosemary Dunsmore (Madame Armfeldt).  As he third couple, Désirée and Fredrik, Ms. McIntosh and Ben Carlson portray a mature relationship built on mutual knowledge and trust, the ability to laugh at themselves, to work together as a team. It may come late in their characters’ lives, but it will last. Ms. McIntosh gives a wholly rounded performance, showing a woman who is completely self-assured in all aspects of her life, as a career-woman, a mother, a daughter, a lover. Yet, Ms. McIntosh reveals Désirée's regrets in flashes of looks, movements and pauses, culminating in what must be one of the most sublimely rueful renditions of Send in the Clowns one will ever hear.
Sara Farb as Petra, with Matt Alfrano as Frid (background).
Photo by David Hou.
For all the characters in relationships, there is one who steadfastly refuses to be in one, preferring to grab life by the throat before she settles down – as Petra the maid, Sara Farb serves notice that she is ready to move on from playing 10 and 13-year old girls. Let this woman loose, please; let’s see what else she can do.
Add to this the sublime stage art inspired by Per Ekström – that is a guess, but it really does evoke the odd tension of an evening when the sun never quite sets (it is a truly peculiar thing, to live in the Arctic) - and the elegant designs by Debra Hansen that perfectly suit the complex but elegant three-quarter score of Sondheim, and we get a nearly transcendent evening of musical theatre. Sondheim is never very hummable, but if the strains from Weekend in the Country don’t follow you all the way home, you were asleep, my friend, and missed one helluva show.
A Little Night Music continues in repertory until October 23rd at the Avon Theatre.

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