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A Little Night Music

South Coast Rep offers a pleasant if bloodless production of Stephen Sondheim's lush musical. logo
Stephanie Zimbalist and Mark Jacoby in A Little Night Music
(© Henry DiRocco)
A Little Night Music is something of an odd duck in the Stephen Sondheim catalogue. Most of his musicals are inherently biting satires or cunning commentaries on present-day society; yet, here's a lush quasi-operetta set in turn-of-the-century Europe -- complete with virgin brides, husband-baiting actresses, and adulterous aristocrats -- that is designed to leave smiles on the faces of its audience members. As such, the musical is a delicate flower, and one that has wilted in the hands of Stefan Noviski's pleasant but bloodless production at South Coast Repertory.

Based on Ingmar Bergman's classic film, Smiles of a Summer Night, the show revolves around stuffy lawyer Fredrik (Mark Jacoby), who still desires his ex-flame Desirée (Stephanie Zimbalist), a world-famous actress. Meanwhile, his socially awkward son Henrik (Joe Farrell) secretly lusts after his young, virginal stepmother Anne (Carolann Sanita).

To complicate matters, Desirée has been having an affair with the bombastic Count Carl-Magnus (Damon Kirsche), much to the chagrin of his long-suffering wife Charlotte (Amanda Naughton) and Desiree's steely mother, Madame Armfeldt (Teri Ralston). When they all converge on a country estate to confront their messy lives head on, there's no telling who may end up with whom.

Fans of Sondheim will once again delight in his twisty word plays, delicious double entendres, and complex musical schemes. But those familiar with Jonathan Tunick's original, Tony Award-winning orchestrations will be disappointed that this production has chosen to forgo the horn section. The lack of these instruments contributes to the production's bland sound, most evident in "A Weekend in the Country," with relies heavily on the use of trumpets.

Sadly, the vitality lacking in the orchestra reflects the malaise sometimes seen on the stage. The cast gives agreeable performances, but there's no tangible rhythm or spark, and no relationship between them with the audience. On the plus side, Zimbalist demonstrates ample comic timing, while also illustrating the loneliness a person can feel when she second guesses past decisions. As Charlotte, Naughton sharply shoots librettist Hugh Wheeler's dry verbal bullets at everyone around her, while Misty Cotton, as the lusty maid Petra, also has fun with the tongue-twisting "The Miller's Wife."

Fortunately, the production design is entirely praiseworthy. Shigeru Yaji dresses the cast in gorgeous outfits, particularly for Zimbalist and Naughton, while scenic designer Sibyl Wickersheimer keeps the show flowing with sets sliding in and out from view. But the visual beauty can't mask the fact that this Night Music lacks the needed blend of zeal and urgency to truly thrive onstage.

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