Opening in 1973, A Little Night Music was part of the muscular turbulence of those well-remembered primal days of rage. Rage that bred inhaled cynicism like a needed eye-opening drug into the arts for many of us. Even the more refined, Mahler-loving denizens of Broadway were no stranger to the acerbity. Only a Nixon-loving fool back then would think all was right with the world.
The times were corrosive. They were brittle with Vietnam, Watergate, Wounded Knee, and God knows what other hurly-burly. Some of us under 30 back then wanted art to be ripping; aimed to burn down the “high-arts” so fondly important to those in charge. It was a burn down the mission world. Rip off all the white gloves.
And who steps in, but Stephen Sondheim. No, make that he waltzed in, in 3/4 time, with his now legendary A Little Night Music.
So, as I sat in my seat one recent night at Arlington’s Signature Theatre, I wanted to know how what was once so dripping with cynicism, and played as if laced with cyanide, would hold up.
How foolish of me to worry. The answer is splendidly. This impressionist column builds on the review from my DC Theater Arts colleague Jane Franklin.
From the get-go, Director Eric Schaeffer had my eyes “see” and believe what my ears surely have missed before. Sondheim’s lyrical barbs, sharp darts, and piercing arrows had not lost their marks. Hugh Wheeler’s book came to life more than I recall. Together with his Signature creative team, Schaeffer made this A Little Night Music not merely a well-sung production of what could be a tedious, caustic-tinged comedy. He located the decency, the actual soul, in several of the foolish people that Sondheim and Wheeler placed on paper.
It all seemed to start with Eric Schaeffer’s deft casting of Holly Twyford, DC acting royalty, in the coveted role of Desiree Armfeld. That Twyford was not known for her singing… well Schaeffer isn’t an artistic director with cajones for nothing. The casting of Twyford was alchemy. I watched and listened to her worldly Desiree blossom on the Signature stage.
The chemistry Twyford produced with Signature’s protean man, Bobby Smith, was a wonder – her comic timing, her facial expressions, the way she moved during the duet with Smith for “You Must Meet My Wife,” her dead-stop WTF beat incredulity about hearing that a middle-aged widower would marry a18 year old waif (Nicki Elledge) who could have been his “daughter” – is totally “Snap” worthy.
With “Send in the Clowns,” the visibly stricken and weary Twyford was heavenly; so real with her blood-drained look of loss and sorrow. Twyford gave the words she sang the bittersweet lament and theatrical presence of a woman who, at that moment in time, saw she had probably wasted her life in pursuit of the temporary drug of sex, rather than longer lasting love. Yes, Twyford and Smith are most definitely a finely matched pair.
Another case of Schaeffer alchemy – the pairing of Tracy Lynn Olivera with Will Gartshore as husband and wife – also sparkle in their own way. Olivera, her voice like a heavenly angel, is drop dead gorgeous with her deadpan comedic skill and her dramatic take on a woman who has become unmoored. Olivera simply pops and sizzles. Responding to the total loud mouth “badass”stupidity of Gartshore, her eyes become ablaze with snark one moment ; then, in her song “Every Day a Little Death,” become vacant, if not dead, in frozen pain. As for Gartshore, what a performance as a pain in the ass! He is a total impersonation of an insufferable man; an obnoxious character who needed to be put in his place (perhaps with a leash and collar}.
There is Florence Lacey; (Madame Amfeldt) she was so unlabored with her frosty presence and line deliveries. She cut to the bone of the foolishness and illusions of others, though not her own. I was also struck by Schaeffer’s take on Lacey’s final scene. It was like a gauzy cinematic fade for Lacey’s character. A juicy statement, but so quietly accomplished. All about being forgotten.
This A Little Night Music is full of earned compassion for its aging characters. Time passed, tastes change. For this audience member, A Little Night Music is a juggernaut of a musical that began with the divine inspiration to cast Holly Twyford. This production has all the fine singing and brilliant music that anyone could want. It also has an authentic melancholy to balance its dripping cynicism. Yeah, I needed that.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including one fifteen-minute intermission.