Monday, March 24, 2008

Cygnet Offers Champagne-Like Night Music in Old Town


Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTO" Trevor Hollingsworth as the shirtless Frid and Melissa Fernandes as Petra the maid in Cygnet Theatre’s A Little Night Music. (Photo: Randy Rovang.)

The custom when christening a new ship is to break a bottle of champagne across its bow before it slides off the gangway into the water. To christen its tenancy at the Old Town Theatre, the Cygnet company has offered a similarly effervescent show — Stephen Sondheim’s and Hugh Wheeler’s classic musical A Little Night Music — and done it in a sparkling, bubbly production that does special credit to Sean Murray, who in addition to being Cygnet’s co-founder and artistic director also directs this production and plays the male lead.

The show began life in 1955 as Smiles on a Summer Night, a film by legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman — who forsook his usual angst-ridden meditations on faith and its discontents to show he could do a comedy, albeit a relatively deep character comedy with real emotion. In addition to the musical, for which Sondheim wrote both music and lyrics and Wheeler did the book, Woody Allen made a combined tribute and spoof called A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. A Little Night Music generated what is probably Sondheim’s most popular song (as a composer, anyway; before he started writing music he was the lyricist for Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story and Jule Styne’s Gypsy), “Send in the Clowns,” but the rest of Night Music’s score is unfamiliar because it’s so tied to the plot action the songs probably wouldn’t make much sense performed on their own.

A Little Night Music is a comic romp through such knotty issues as sex, morality and age. Attorney Fredrik Egerman (Sean Murray) has married a much younger woman, Anne (Courtney Evans), but hasn’t been able to consummate the relationship even though they’ve been together as husband and wife for nearly a year. (They even sing a nicely witty duet, “Soon,” about their mutual sexual frustration.) Part of the problem is that the man Anne is really in love with is her stepson Henrik (Sean Cox), who’s studying for the ministry, constantly has his nose in a book by Martin Luther, and is responding to his burgeoning sexuality by alternately trying to wish it away and throwing himself at the Egermans’ maid, Petra (Melissa Fernandes).

The other part of the problem is that Fredrik still pines for the sexually licentious actress Desirée Arnfeldt (Marci Anne Wuebben), daughter of a dowager (Sandra-Ellis Troy) who got a house in the country from the fortunes she accumulated from her own run of affluent boyfriends — if any cabaret singer wants to do a song from this show other than “Send In the Clowns,” Madame Arnfeldt’s marvelously witty confession “Liaisons” would be the best choice. Desirée is still playing Shakespeare’s star-crossed teenage lover Juliet even though she’s old enough to have a teenage daughter (Nicki Elledge) of her own, and though she tells us she’s had sex with so many men she has no idea who the father is, the fact that she’s named her “Frederika” drops a sixteen-ton hint.

At the moment, Desirée is having an affair with a stuck-up military officer named Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Randall Dodge), whose manner is as imperious as his name, and though he’s married to Countess Charlotte (Sandy Campbell) he’s still fiercely possessive of Desirée as well. All the characters get invited to Madame Arnfeldt’s summer home for the second act, where they sing a whimsical song called “The Sun Won’t Set” (a reference to the fact that Sweden is so far north that at the height of summer daytime is about 18 to 20 hours long) and Charlotte hatches a plot to win back her husband by vamping Fredrik herself. There are also Desirée’s entourage and Madame Arnfeldt’s hot-looking young servant and caregiver, Frid (Trevor Hollingsworth), who really doesn’t have much to do in the story but gets to go shirtless through most of the second act — and yes, the straight women and Gay men in the audience will have a lot of fun looking at him that way.

Cygnet’s production has its usual hallmarks: strong casting top to bottom, an effective physical set that frames the action without either being overly literal or leaving too much to our imaginations, and appropriately busy direction by Murray that keeps the actors in such constant motion that their rare moments of repose (especially when they have to sing) have a sort of negative power all their own. Sondheim began his score with a series of wordless vocalises from his cast members that resolve into a song called “Night Waltz,” and if nothing else this tough opening number gives the cast members a chance to let us know there isn’t a weak voice in the bunch.

It’s a testament to the overall vocal excellence of the cast that no one singer stands out, either, though inevitably Wuebben gets noticed more than anyone else because she has the show’s biggest song. She does “Send In the Clowns” in a halting, rather broken style that has Sondheim’s sanction (he’s said in interviews that since the singer is portraying an aging character, she shouldn’t worry about pausing for breath in the middle of a line), but I still think the song works better the long-breathed way the late jazz singer Sarah Vaughan did it, and Wuebben almost certainly has the vocal chops to pull it off in that style if either she or her director permitted. I would like to hear more people who do “Clowns” out of context add the delightful — and rarely heard — lyrics of its reprise at the end.

The singers perform to a pre-recorded backing conducted by Don LeMaster, who’s had experience conducting “live” orchestra for shows at Moonlight Stage Productions and Performance Riverside and will be doing the same for the new San Diego Musical Theatre. Recorded backings have an obvious downside — the singers are essentially chained to the tempi originally set for them by the tapes and they and their conductor can’t vary the speed and phrasing of a number according to how they feel and how the audience responds during a particular performance — but the obvious plus is at least we get to hear the full orchestration. We’re not stuck with a piano reduction the way we are at some smaller theatres that attempt musicals (though some musicals written for small-theatre production, like the Queer-themed 10 Percent Revue Diversionary Theatre produced a few years ago, solve the problem by incorporating the pianist as a character in the script).

The set by Sean Fanning — a large screen with a forest of artificial trees behind it — works to set the mood and give lighting designer Matthew Novotny an appropriate canvas on which to work his magic. A few simple props by Bonnie L. Durben (mostly a dummy piano and a series of beds, couches and whatnot for the characters to recline and make love on) give the actors enough to work with without filling the stage with clutter. About the only glitch in the physical production occurs when we see Desirée playing the final scene of Romeo and Juliet — and Novotny turns on a set of footlights and points them at us to represent a view of her from the back of the stage (hers, not ours). Only Fanning’s trees are still visible through the screen, suggesting either that the members of her audience are hiding amongst the trees or the trees are her audience.

Overall, Cygnet’s A Little Night Music is the theatrical equivalent of champagne: sophisticated but with enough jokes (including a few pretty lowbrow ones) that can make just about anybody laugh; light and frothy but still inducing a mood of sustained merriment. Kudos go not only to Sondheim and Wheeler (and Ingmar Bergman!) for creating it in the first place but to Cygnet’s formidable cast of singing actors for bringing the characters to rich, vivid life and their technical crew for framing the actors’ performances beautifully and lovingly. But the loudest shout-out goes to Sean Murray, who not only steers this company from triumph to triumph but in this production is a triple-threat producer, director and star — and equally adept at all three.

A Little Night Music plays through Sunday, May 4 at Old Town Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street in Old Town. A Cygnet Theatre presentation. Performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Prices are $28 to $33 Thursday and Sunday evenings, $30 to $35 Friday evenings and Sunday matinees, and $32 to $37 Saturday evenings. For reservations, orders or information, visit Cygnet Theatre at 6663 El Cajon Blv’d., Suite N in the College/Rolando area , phone (619) 3370-1525 or visit online at