Los Angeles Theater Review: A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (East West Players)

by Tony Frankel on May 18, 2012

in Theater-Los Angeles

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IT COULD HAVE BEEN WONDERFUL

East West Players’ cross-cultural take on the Stephen Sondheim/Harold Wheeler musical A Little Night Music highlights one of the most shimmering and romantic scores in American Musical Theatre, but the capricious performances and inconsistent directorial choices obstruct the radiance necessary to tell the tale about erotic liaisons in turn-of-the-century Sweden.

In director Tim Dang’s version, we are no longer in the land where the sun never sets. The program indicates “The most European of Asian Cities” – perhaps Macao? – but Adam Flemming’s beautiful bamboo-forested set, luxuriantly lit by Dan Weingarten, could just as easily indicate a colonized South Seas plantation; plus, Jessica Olson’s costumes are a gallimaufry of Asian styles (Japanese, Chinese, etc.). Both set and outfits are well-rendered, but the lack of adherence to one place or time could confuse first-timers to the 1973 musical, especially given the Scandinavian references in the script.

Tony Frankel’s Los Angeles review of A Little Night Music at East West Players

Those who are hearing Sondheim’s work for the first time will be rightfully dazzled by his sumptuous use of ¾ waltz time, polyphony and counterpoint; even more impressive are his stunning and mind-bogglingly clever lyrics that elucidate character even as they move the plot forward. Jonathan Tunick’s splendid orchestrations are always missed in small revivals (especially that French horn in “Weekend in the Country”); Caroline Su’s rendition of piano, violin and cello is pleasant, but there is a danger in plucking out a few orchestral parts from Tunick’s work: the voicing of the instruments can interfere with, not complement, the vocals; other times, the strings are overpowered by the cast. At the remarkable Writers’ Theatre revival now on in Chicago, an added harp made all the difference to their string quintet.

Tony Frankel’s Los Angeles review of A Little Night Music at East West Players

There are plenty of opulent voices on hand at EWP, most of whom are up to the challenging score, starting with a vocal quintet – Liebeslieders – who introduce the show with an a cappella overture (the distinctive voices of Kerry K. Carnahan, Jennifer Hubilla, DT Matias, Kristina Reyes, and Paul Wong blend quite well). During the show, they act as a Greek chorus, commenting on past dalliances and roaming amongst main characters. Unfortunately, we can’t tell if they are ghosts from the past, plantation servants or next door neighbors; either way, they seem as familiar to waltzing as the King of Siam (prosaic choreography by Reggie Lee). Although Dang creates some well-proportioned stage pictures, his amorphous chorus is relegated to step-forward, step-back simplicity, promenading arm-in-arm with insufficient suggestions of intrigue and elegance.

It’s a shame that the ensemble missed so much of the comedy and sophistication of the piece, as many of the actors are quite likeable. Jon Jon Briones is in terrific voice as the lawyer Fredrik Egerman, a man in an unconsummated marriage to a trophy wife, Anne, played by Katy Tang, who I found charming. Fredrik’s seminarian son Henrik is a troubled, misunderstood youth, but Glenn Fernandez plays him forced and whiny, not sullen and turbulent; Fernandez employs a fascinating and lovely vibrato; unfortunately, it lacks power.

Tony Frankel’s Los Angeles review of A Little Night Music at East West Players

Fredrick reunites with his old flame, actress Desiree Armfeldt, who is on tour near his home; Melody Butiu has some comical moments as the middle-aged thespian, but she wears her duplicity on her sleeve – Desiree should be far more clever than that. Desiree’s daughter, Fredrika (an out-of-place Sascha Tominaga) now resides with her grandmother, the dowager Madame Armfeldt, in the country. It’s a remarkably fun decision to have Karen Huie play the old woman as a bossy, opium-smoking, old meanie, but her choices fluctuated and she never seemed high, except when she pronounces “Liaisons” correctly, when it needed to rhyme with “Raisins.” (And if you think I’m picky, Sondheim would no doubt write an Op-Ed piece about such an egregious error).

Tony Frankel’s Los Angeles review of A Little Night Music at East West Players

Maegan McConnell as Egerman’s sexy maid, Petra, was a standout, and her “The Miller’s Son” incorporated the perfect blend of lustiness, regret and vulnerability, although she, along with Huie and Fernandez, have voices that will probably not arrive at the back of the house.

Marcus Choi plays Carl-Magnus, Desiree’s paramour, and Tiffany-Marie Austin is his wife Charlotte. Carl-Magnus is an overstuffed dragoon, but Choi plays him as droll and infantile, when he should be imperious to cover up his insecurities. Charlotte, who is given some of the driest dialogue in the show, is played by Austin with detached bitterness, when she needs to be a cynic who uses humor to hide her pain; Charlotte may be frustrated in her marriage, but I’m pretty damn sure that she knows how funny she is. Ms. Austin was going more for Strindberg than Ingmar Bergman, whose 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night inspired this musical.

Tony Frankel’s Los Angeles review of A Little Night Music at East West Players

I admired so much about this production, including the lovely trappings. And although I disagreed with the actors’ choices, I truly enjoyed spending time with this cast and their beautiful, unmiked voices; they handled the score commendably. At first, it seemed like a perfect fit between EWP and Night, but adding a patina of Asian to the proceedings does little if the show lacks subtext and consistent stylistic choices. Still – because of Sondheim’s classy, lyrical score – even a spotty production of A Little Night Music remains music to my ears.

photos by Michael Lamont

A Little Night Music
East West Players
David Henry Hwang Theater at the Union Center for the Arts
120 Judge John Aiso St
ends on June 10, 2012 EXTENDED to June 24, 2012
for tickets, call 213.625.7000 or EWP