A Little Night Music, book and music by Stephen Sondheim, directed by Valerie Rachelle. At PCPA’s Solvang Festival Theatre, Saturday, August 12. Shows through August 27.
Reviewed by D. J. Palladino
Certainly there was sex in American musicals before this play debuted in 1973. Consider the dissolute randiness of Cabaret. But A Little Night Music — based loosely on the uncharacteristically comic Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night — makes the couples coupling seem so “Me Decade” — a wink-wink, we-all-do-it-folks laugh, followed hastily by repercussions. I overheard a Solvang audience member talk about how those Europeans all have lovers and such but this production doesn’t seem European.
First off, the actors are not very sexy. Edward Hightower’s Count is such a boorish caricatured male chauvinist, the play feels like a feminist-penned tragedy. All the fun of a sex romp is destroyed knowing that Melinda Perrett’s Countess is probably beaten by her husband, an offhand remark we take seriously because Hightower makes him so sinister. Thus this waltz musical seems like a cultural apocalypse at times. (Leonard Cohen could’ve written it.) The minimal staging with lovers darting across invisible borders and in front of gilded gates seems to lower the platforms of civility, giving the childish characters the hypocritical veneer needed for mannered comedy. It’s often a bummer.
The music is nice, though. Before Sondheim became so fugue-y and impressionistic, he played lush melodies. Night Music sits on the cusp with songs like “You Must Meet My Wife” and “Remember,” mixing talk and song as well as wonder and sarcasm. The melodic side, of course, is represented by Sondheim’s greatest hit, “Send in the Clowns.” It is lovely played outdoors but, honestly, the song bears only a tenuous relationship to the play.
When Bergman — and later Woody Allen — pulled out the stops for this story, they scored by making stuffy Scandinavia seem Italian. This troupe wants to tighten up the screws. Reserved theatrics and a plain set make the heart of Night Music shrink. Instead of clowns, the director should have ordered a few more summer smiles, to lighten the guilty pleasures of all this screwing around.