In one respect, A Little Night Music is so last century.
Stephen Sondheim's musical centers on three men and three women who are either stuck in bad marriages or wishing they were married; and one of these is the lover of two of the men. There's also a sage older woman who has experienced everything and wants to tell all. The first act sets up the mismatches and the resulting tensions, and the second act resolves them predictably.
Of course, this show is set in the previous century. A Little Night Music debuted on Broadway 40 years ago, and by now its thematic "battle of the sexes" is anguishing to sit through, even if some of the process still rings true: "Ah, how you promised/ And, ah, how I lied."
It's not that people nowadays don't think of lusting after someone else, and it's definitely not that the woman is not exploited more often than the man. It's just that adultery is no longer such a big deal, at least on stage. What's more, theatergoers now have much bolder takes on gender relationships to choose from. (Consider, for instance, the explosive female in David Ives's Venus in Fur, currently at the Philadelphia Theatre Company.)
An opera, maybe
Yet A Little Night Music still works if you consider it not as a Broadway musical but as an opera, where we take for granted the weakness or the absurdity of the plot and focus instead on singers and musicians.
Sondheim's music and lyrics are sufficiently muscular to support the promotion to the "opera" category. In fact, Night Music may work better as opera than as a musical show. After a bit of fidgeting as I realized the vapid direction that the plot was taking me, I let myself be carried away by Sondheim— and then I fully enjoyed the Arden production.
Even if Night Music's plot can't be taken seriously, the production elements remain vital. The Arden provides a strong cast, led by Grace Gonglewski (as Desiree Armfeldt), who seems to fully inhabit every role she's ever played. I hadn't heard her sing before, but she brought a warm, fully adequate voice to the near-legendary "Send in the Clowns," which is one of those songs that can be virtually spoken rather than sung.
Gonglewski's restrained, controlled performance is mirrored in the minimalism of the stage set. Madame Armfeldt's mansion is surely sumptuous, but we can't make out the luxury. The tall interior walls are indistinct rather than solid, as if set in a mist.
Outdoor scenes are represented by tall trees reaching up beyond the sightlines— trunks only, no leaves or branches. Interiors of other characters' homes are marked by rectangular cuts for doorways— no doors, no hardware. These spaces are uninviting, a counterpoint to the self-indulgent yet sad lives that pass through them.
I attended a matinee performance, so as the audience streamed out into the lobby between acts, we joined a horde of children during their intermission of Pinocchio. As a grandparent, I had to hope that they were absorbing that play's lesson of "Don't lie to your dad or mom."
But what was the use? If there's a durable message in A Little Night Music, it's that they'll still be lying when they're grownups. ♦
To read another review by Steve Cohen, click here.