Smiles of a Pessimist

Great Lakes has admirably revived Sondheim's A Little Night Music. But a little tweaking would have helped.

For those who cheerfully choose to forgo the mundane, there is the Great Lakes Theatre Festival production of A Little Night Music. This is a musical for champions of delicacy--those who prefer silk to polyester, who note the difference between Godiva and Hershey's.

Just like some exotic passion flower, A Little Night Music comes from a rare pollination. Ingmar Bergman, who specialized in films of a gloomy mankind riding the rails of torment, temporarily relented to write and direct 1955's Smiles of a Summer Night, a wry, bittersweet, turn-of-the-century midsummer night view of mismatched fools who are paired off by the benevolent forces of nature in a frantic weekend on a country estate. As with Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness!, it demonstrated that even a profound pessimist can flash a radiant smile.

In 1973 Stephen Sondheim (along with book writer Hugh Wheeler), Broadway's reigning chameleon, mined Lehar, Mahler, Lerner and Loewe, and Cole Porter to craft a perfect musical disguised as an operetta in 3/4 time. Sondheim is incapable of subterfuge or betraying a story for a hit. When Jerry Herman writes about an old customer returning to her favorite bistro, he pulls Hello, Dolly! out of his sleeve. Rodgers and Hammerstein can have some farmers sing about how fond they are of their state, and it becomes Oklahoma! Their audiences feel entitled to a hit they can yodel in the bathtub after the show.

Yet, when A Little Night Music's two middle-aged, jaded lovers sing of missed opportunities for cohesion, one expected the plaintive "Send in the Clowns" to elucidate the situation; in a rare Broadway turnabout, it became an enchanted melody instead. The song pluggers took note: First came Judy Collins, then Frank Sinatra, and yes, even Barbra Streisand. The song entered the jukebox pantheon. Even more surprising, the show that it came from became a crowd pleaser, Sondheim's most accessible musical. There is even a botched film version with Liz Taylor.

Director Victoria Bussert started doing Sondheim as her first pair of theatrical training wheels, and she never stopped. She does him in barns, on tours, and on roller coasters. In recent decades, she has become Sondheim's consecrated priestess and musical theater's answer to Julia Child--a pro with ideas creating hearty banquets. Bussert, who worked like a Trojan, cooked up A Little Night Music for the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, then scooped it up and brought it to the Great Lakes Theatre Festival.

Admittedly, it is not as fresh as a gourmet spread, as was the far more intimate and heartfelt production she put together for Cain Park a few years back. Yet, with set designer John Ezell's magical foliage and dollhouse mansion--to surround Countess Charlotte's (Donna English) angst and Count Carl-Magnus's (Scott Brush) scary hypnotic grin--production and material meld into something stylish and special. Adding the tang of gourmet mustard to the proceeding is Marji Dodrill's magnificent mummy of a grandmother, with a voice that amply penetrates like a cracked gong. Music Director Nancy Gantose-Maier protects the delicate intimacy of Sondheim's score. When Garrett Long's distressed doll wife joins hands with English's Countess to bemoan their husbands' mutual infidelity in the song "Every Day a Little Death," Berman's artistry is perfectly evoked in musical form.

The show is a jeweled clockwork, and Bussert manages to keep it artfully ticking, yet there are kinks. Erin Hill's tease of a maid, Petra, is played with blatant carnality, where saucy innuendo would have more than sufficed. The five-member chorus tends to blend into the scenery, and the first act rouser, "Weekend in the Country," fails to inflate adequately. Often there is a broad burlesque shove where there should have been only an elegant jab; this leads to comedy played far too broadly and a lack of needed pathos. Thom Sesma's lawyer never reaches beyond the footlights and Alison Bevan's Desiree Armfeldt, while likable, warm, and well-sung, lacks the womanliness and idiosyncratic charm the part requires.

Even diluted, though, the fizz never evaporates until evening's end. In an era that offers up shows like Footloose and Rent as supposed examples of sumptuous theatrical repasts, A Little Night Music is indeed a true blue-plate special.