what do you get when you throw Woody Allen, William Shakespeare, Henrik Ibsen, Ingmar Bergman and Stephen Sondheim into a blender? A Little Night Music, the Sondheim musical currently running at the Shaw Festival, an elegant comic hybrid reminiscent of some of the great film and theatre artists of the 16th, 19th and 20th centuries ? and beyond. From A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Rosmersholm to Smiles of a Summer’s Night and A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, this light chamber opera of sorts trickles across the stage sporting an array of musical and literary influences. Considered Sondheim’s most “whimsical chuckle at the human condition” (according to the original orchestrator Jonathan Tunick) the show has seen numerous productions worldwide over the past 35 years and boasts a star-studded 1978 film version with Elizabeth Taylor in the lead role of actress Desirée Armfeldt.
Desirée is a somewhat disenchanted regional actress who, by the end of Sondheim’s treatment, finds herself playing Ibsen’s fated Hedda Gabler in a less than glamourous northern European town. But her route toward this end is littered with the stuff of romantic farce and should be a rollicking and delightful romp for the eye and ear.
Unfortunately the Shaw production takes most of the first act to attain any kind of comic or musical energy. When it finally does so it is largely due to the entrances of Thom Allison as the wild-eyed and comically charismatic Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm and Patty Jamieson as the hesitant romantic rebel Countess Charlotte Malcolm. As one of three somewhat misguided couples, both performers possess the ability to strike a delicate balance between the comic play and romantic drama the show requires. Their musical prowess beautifully conquers the very challenging, almost dissonant recitative that the score relies upon. Ably supported by Robin Evan Willis as Anne, Jamieson stops the show with her wonderful rendition of the Sondheim classic “Every Day a Little Death.” But for the most part the rest of the show stumbles across a crowded stage overdesigned by Ken MacDonald and underdirected by Morris Panych.
Panych might have taken this opportunity to lift one of the crucial words from the shows most popular tune, “Send in the Clowns,” and “queer” the whole thing up a bit. A musically gifted chorus of two young men and two young women, rather than coupling in heterocentric predictability, could have challenged the audience with a bit of same-sex savoir faire. But alas, this is no radical production, nor is it all that pleasing. With the exception of Julie Martell’s Petra delivering a wonderful version of “The Miller’s Son” and Desirée’s beautifully understated “Send in the Clowns” the romantic stakes are never raised to theatrical or musical heights. George Masswohl as Fredrik Egerman and Goldie Semple as Desirée Armfeldt don’t achieve any real chemistry and their voices, although proficient and powerful, lack emotional range, leaving audiences wondering where the passion lies.
What’s needed in this simple, at times elegant, yet generally lifeless production is, unsurprisingly enough, a little night music. We received precious little.