`Night' smiles a little uneven

Blair Brown lights up Kennedy Center stage

Theater Review

August 06, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The summer night smiles three times - once at the young, once at the fools and once at the old, the character of Madame Armfeldt tells her granddaughter in the musical A Little Night Music.

There are many charms in this revival of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's 1973 musical at the Kennedy Center in Washington - high among them a radiant performance by Blair Brown. But the evening's smiles aren't equally bright in this latest Sondheim Celebration production.

The musical - based on Ingmar Bergman's 1955 movie, Smiles of a Summer Night - is as close to a theatrical confection as anything in the Sondheim canon. This doesn't mean it's pure froth, however. Sondheim himself has called it "whipped cream with knives."

Still, it's essentially a romantic comedy of manners set in the upper reaches of turn-of-the-20th-century Swedish society, and like the stars in the summer sky, it should be incandescent.

The first indication of the unevenness of director Mark Brokaw's production comes in the opening moments, when five performers, who serve as a cross between a quintet of lieder singers and a Greek chorus, sing the overture. But instead of blending into a smooth whole, their voices are variable, with the weaker occasionally overpowered by conductor Nicholas Archer's orchestra.

Then the five glide into choreographer John Carrafa's graceful, partner-changing waltz, with the principal actors joining in. The partner-swapping waltz isn't innovative. Similar choreography was part of the original production. Indeed, this entire production is more loyal than inventive.

But the introductory waltz works as beautifully as ever. The number immediately establishes the elegant feel and romantic sound of the show, whose songs are almost all composed in 3/4 time. And the changing partners hint at the plot, which concerns intertwined pairs of mismatched lovers.

"Three" is one of the governing principles of this musical, whose various liaisons take the form of romantic triangles. The central triangle involves Brown's character, an actress named Desiree Armfeldt; her current lover, a pompous dragoon; and her former lover, a lawyer named Fredrik, whom she hopes to win back and marry. Complicating the situation - and creating additional triangles - is the fact that both men are married.

At the end of the first act, Desiree's two lovers, and their wives, prepare to spend "A Weekend in the Country" at the estate of Desiree's mother, Madame Armfeldt, a former courtesan to royalty. Act 2 opens with the anticipation of everything from secret assignations to duels.

Desiree hopes to orchestrate it all. A woman who has thoroughly enjoyed her life on the stage, she now finds herself at an age when she'd like to stop touring and settle down with the man she loves, Fredrik. In Brown's beautifully realized portrayal, Desiree is a bright sophisticate, a lady of poise and self-knowledge.

The show's loveliest moment - punctuated by Sondheim's most famous song - occurs when Desiree realizes that the right choice for her comes at the wrong time for recently married Fredrik. Brown's rendition of "Send in the Clowns" is a gentle marvel of wistful melancholy. In an impressive one-two punch, it is followed by the production's other show-stopper - Natascia Diaz's spirited delivery of "The Miller's Son," a carpe-diem creed sung by a lady's maid determined not to wind up with middle-aged regrets.

In terms of smarts and savvy, Desiree meets her match in the character of the dragoon's devoted but ill-treated wife. Randy Graff's hilarious depiction of this sharp-tongued wife is deepened by flashes of heartbreak, particularly in the duet, "Every Day A Little Death," sung with Fredrik's wife (operatic-voiced Sarah Uriarte Berry).

Of the two men in Desiree's life, Douglas Sills' dragoon is an amusingly vain swashbuckler, and one with a booming, resonant voice. Unlike this overgrown child, John Dossett's Fredrik is a mature, if somewhat misguided, grown-up; regrettably, some of Sondheim's witty lyrics get lost in the actor's lower register.

Sondheim veteran Barbara Bryne's subdued portrayal of Madame Armfeldt is the only genuine disappointment, and it's especially unfortunate since Madame sets the tone for the evening. Bryne is unable to capture the exquisite spark of this grande dame, and her solo, "Liaisons," is characterized more by weariness than pensive yearning for days gone by.

Derek McLane, who has designed the sets for all six Celebration productions, chooses a concept similar to the one he used in Sunday in the Park with George. For that show, which is about an artist, the set was his studio; for this show, about an actress, the set is a stage, with much of the scenery - trees, a chandelier, a theater curtain - represented by painted flats. It's an appropriate choice, but it lacks the splendor captured in Michael Krass' glamorous costumes, and it's partly responsible for the production's shortcomings in the sparkle department.

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