“And There’s Many a Tryst, and There’s Many a Bed”

THEATER REVIEW: A Little Night Music
Huntington Theater, Boston, October 2, 2015

Sometimes a seasoned dish is best prepared traditionally. Director Peter DuBois handles Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s A Little Night Music with good taste, and doesn’t veer far from its original footprint. The second act, with lovers rushing through the trees of Madame Armfeldt’s estate, feels like a modern retake on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the innocence of youth colliding with the rueful awareness of experience.

night musicNote for note, the Huntington’s production is musically superior to the 2009 Catherine Zeta-Jones, later Bernadette Peters, revival in New York (which I saw twice), which reduced the orchestra to eight. The Huntington’s orchestra, fourteen players strong, conveyed the lyricism and intimacy of Sondheim’s score. (A few orchestral parts went missing, notably the woodwind interjections in Fredrik’s “Now.”) Better singing in Boston, too, save for some pinched tenor notes.

This evening, I saw how Hugh Wheeler’s book, which handily juggles the characters’ interweaving love affairs, needs a certain personality to enliven the arch dialogue. The younger lovers Anne and Henrik struggle to make their words sound organic. Lauren Molina’s bug-eyed, overcharged read on Charlotte, wife of an adulterous Count, is a contemporary comment on the role rather than a characterization.

McCaela Donovan impresses as a sweet, unabashed Petra, the Egermans’ maid. After a nighttime outdoor fling, she sings a ravishing “The Miller’s Son.” As she progresses through potential lovers, from the servant she romanced to a wealthy businessman, she finds a revelatory anger in Sondheim’s lyrics: a girl of her station could never hope to wed a businessman. That’s not how the cards are dealt. “And I will marry the miller’s son,” her final lyric, echoes her regret.

Then there’s Haydn Gwynne’s Desiree Armfeldt, who has been everywhere and seen it all, surviving with a grimace. Gwynne is the world-weary, still-on-her-feet center of this chaotic moral universe. Her “Send in the Clowns” complements the rest of her performance. She poises the question more to herself than Fredrik: “Are we a pair?” This is an woman who’s never reached stability, whose age has caught up with her, “this late in my career.” She may not find it this summer night, either—is that drip Fredrik Egerman really her soulmate?—but what can she do but laugh at it all?

“Send in the Clowns” may be indestructible in performance. But Gwynne infuses this chestnut with a heartbreak that restores balance to the evening’s frivolities. Her Desiree is one of the Huntington’s frequent enchantments. Even if moments miss the mark, shouldn’t a person celebrate everything passing by?

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