'Night Music': wet and wonderful

June 25, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

"A Little Night Music"

Where: Evergreen House meadow, 4545 N. Charles St.

When: Tomorrow and Sunday at 6:15 p.m. Grounds open at 4:30 p.m. One indoor performance July 4 at 2:15 p.m. in Shriver Hall, Johns Hopkins University

Tickets: $10

Call: (410) 516-7159

*** 1/2

When the cast of Theatre Hopkins' outdoor production of "A Little Night Music" sang the first-act finale, "A Weekend in the Country," at Saturday's opening, the lines: "How amusing/How delightfully droll," were even more amusing and droll than usual.

That's because while director Todd Pearthree's stalwart actors were extolling the enchantments of the country, they were doing so in the rain. However, the cast's fortitude was the least of this production's many virtues.

The 1973 musical, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Hugh Wheeler, is based on Ingmar Bergman's evocative film, "Smiles of a Summer Night." If the weather had cooperated, it would have been difficult to imagine a more fitting setting than the rolling meadow at Evergreen House.

But this show requires more than a proper setting to make it work. Not only are Sondheim's songs extremely complex, but the plot takes more twists and turns than a formal garden maze.

In turn-of-the-century Sweden, a middle-aged lawyer named Fredrik has married a teen-age bride, although he still carries a torch for his former love, an acclaimed actress named Desiree. She, meanwhile, is having an affair with a beautiful-but-dumb dragoon, who happens to be married to one of Fredrik's wife's former school chums.

Throughout the course of the show, these characters -- and a few others -- pair and unpair in various combinations until the couples who belong together are finally united. This game of romantic musical chairs is portrayed in Sondheim's devilishly clever songs (the dragoon sings: "Fidelity is more than mere display/It's what a man expects from life./Fidelity like mine to Desiree/And Charlotte, my devoted wife . . . "). And, at Evergreen, the changing allegiances are also skillfully reflected in Pearthree's fluid direction and choreography.

Pearthree is the first guest director Theatre Hopkins has ever engaged, and he appears to be in his element with this sophisticated material. In fact, one of his strengths as a director of musicals is his respect for lyrics. Even with the cast zipping along in the rain, every one of Sondheim's witty words came through loud and clear. (Pearthree also deserves credit for solving the problem of amplification in this wide-open field; he uses a combination of carefully adjusted stationary and body mikes.)

The mostly splendid cast includes rich-voiced Braxton Peters as weary Fredrik; lovely soprano Beth Weber as his silly, immature wife; and Dennis Knight as a dragoon whose singing is as handsome as his military bearing.

Rosemary Polen is properly jaded as Desiree, and she does a poignant job with the hit song, "Send in the Clowns," but her acting could be even broader in this shamelessly theatrical role. Only Anne Helms Irons, as Desiree's mother, seems somewhat overwhelmed by Sondheim's demands.

Incidentally, although Saturday's performance continued in spite of the rain, Sunday's show was halted approximately a third of the way through due to lightning (I said the actors displayed fortitude, not foolhardiness). Of course, everyone knows you can't fool Mother Nature, and she can be a real impediment to Theatre Hopkins' annual foray into the great outdoors. So with only two remaining al fresco performances, I would suggest you grab a blanket -- and an umbrella -- and, pardon the pun, soak up "A Little Night Music" at Evergreen.

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