Inaugural Ball

Cygnet Theatre has already extended A Little Night Music, with good reason. They’re offering a wonderful production of Stephen Sondheim’s kaleidoscopic inspection of love’s many faces.

This is Cygnet’s inaugural show at the Old Town Theatre (and what a coup it was to occupy this centrally located, intimate gem!). Now you’d expect a shakedown cruise for a new space to call for something simple: say a three-character, one-kitchen, chatty comedy about relationships, or yet another one person’s healing journey with oodles of affirmation. Instead, Cygnet chose a difficult musical “masque” that requires a top performance from every participant — and delivered it! Part of the thrill of their opening night came from watching local talent excel in a theater heretofore given over to commercial touring shows.

One could quibble that the music’s piped in, but the singers are splendid. When Sean Cox, who plays young, sexually repressed Henrik, sings “Later,” he accompanies himself on the cello. The five-person chorus has knockout voices. And when Sean Murray, as late-midlife-crisis’d Fredrik, and Sally Hart Breneman, as the Arkadina-like Mrs. Nordstrom, sing “Send in the Clowns,” they catch the song’s late-autumnal tone to perfection.

Jeanne Reith decks everyone in fin de siècle (fin of the 19th siecle) finery. Reith’s morning coats and petticoat-plump dresses, sweeping hats (and Peter Herman’s wigs) bespeak elegance. Sandy Campbell, a kick as the alcoholic, Strindbergian Countess Charlotte, sports a sumptuous crocheted-brocaded outfit and multi-feathered chapeau that evoked gasps of awe from first-nighters. I swear I heard one of them say, “Isn’t it rich?”

The original story evolved from financial necessity. Ingmar Bergman wanted to film The Seventh Seal but “needed money,” so he made Smiles of a Summer Night, a comedy built around four mismatched couples. Always bedrock honest about his work, Bergman said the movie “wasn’t funny, stylized, too lame, and too long.” But it — rightfully — won the jury prize at Cannes and inspired Stephen Sondheim to put Smiles’s “mathematical pattern” to music.

Madame Armfeldt (a wise, almost elegiac Sandra Ellis-Troy) has passed the age of liaisons. She tells her granddaughter, Frederika, yet to liaise, that summer nights have three kinds of smiles: (1) of the young, who know nothing; (2) of fools, who know too little; and (3) of the very old, who know too much. This speech sets up the musical. But actually Mme. Armfeldt, who has smile #3, oversimplifies. Night Music looks at the whole zodiac of love from innocence to deep experience and variations in between — almost every possible combination, in fact, except a happy couple.

Like Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Seagull by Chekhov, partners begin mismatched. Middle-aged Fredrik has yet to consummate his 11-month marriage to a teenaged Anne; Fredrik’s son Henrik also has eyes for Anne and will curb urges at a seminary. The father and son must rank among the most unrequited (i.e., sex-starved) males in musical theater history.

Count Carl-Magnus, whom Randall Dodge’s booming voice and great-sized emotions turn into a Swedish Miles Gloriosus, is a braggart philanderer, though his lover, Desiree, treats him like a bookmark until she and Fredrik get back on the same page. The maid Petra (the always enjoyable Melissa Fernandes) likes to have a good time but finds few takers. Then, through a transformation resembling Oberon and Titania’s in Dream — what fools these lovers be! — they wander, stumble, and shed illusions. They not only fall into a potentially abiding love, they all grow up a little.

To stress that the couples get lost in the “game” of love, rather than loving truly, Sondheim wanted Madame Armfeldt to shuffle a symbolic deck of cards. Hugh Wheeler, who wrote the book, rejected the notion, claiming it’s implicit in the original (and in Sondheim’s first number, “Night Waltz,” in which dancers change partners again and again). It’s also implicit in Sean Murray’s direction. Armfeldt is an elderly Swedish woman, but with suggestions of Shakespeare’s Oberon and Titania; the chorus often weaves through scenes as if invisible — like Titania’s fairies. These visual quotations never clog the stage with symbolism or referential baggage. Instead they are wispy, on the margin, like a parallel universe or theatrical ghosts kibitzing with Sondheim’s great musical.

The cast performs on Sean Fanning’s spare, gaslit stage, at the rear of which a forest of white birch tree trunks rise behind a scrim: an apt locale for unstable lovers to get lost and, owing to the alchemy of a summer night, quite possibly find longings fulfilled.

A Little Night Music, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler, based on the movie Smiles of a Summer Night
Cygnet Theatre, Old Town Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street, Old Town
Directed by Sean Murray; cast: Murray, Marci Anne Wuebben, Sandy Campbell, Sean Cox, Sandra Ellis-Troy, Randall Dodge, Melissa Fernandes, Susan Hammons, Nicki Elledge, Shelly Hart Breneman, Michael Dooling, Trevor Hollingsworth, Courtney Evans, Brian Imoto, Amy Northcutt, Kim Strassburger; scenic design, Sean Fanning; costumes, Jeanne Reith; lighting, Matthew Novotny; sound, George Ye; orchestrations, Sean Paxton; musical director, Don LeMaster; choreographer, James Vasquez
Playing through May 11; Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 619-337-1525.

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