It’s hard to think of a more appropriate piece to inaugurate a theater than A Little Night Music. Stephen Sondheim’s 1973 musical, which opens December 5 as the Ensemble Theatre Company’s first play in the New Vic, is a charming work that wittily references its own theatricality.
First, it utilizes one of the oldest devices in the history of drama, a Greek chorus (which, in this case, sings). Second, one of its central characters is a stage actress, a vivacious woman whose life has, in many ways, been defined by her profession.
Finally, it uses theater as a metaphor — most famously when, after embarrassing herself, the aforementioned actress famously wishes she could “send in the clowns.”
Alas, in real life, flubs can’t be covered up by the timely arrival of a troupe of comics. When it comes to love, this tale implies, we’re all unwitting players in a long-running farce.
In other words, it’s a piece of theater that acknowledges the art form’s ancient roots, while implying that all the world’s a stage. What could be more perfect? Artistic director Jonathan Fox agreed, before adding with a laugh that if any such thoughts influenced his decision, “It was subconscious!”
“I simply thought it was a very inviting show to open a theater with,” he said. “It has all the elements I like in a theater piece: humor, intelligence, sexuality, love. It’s such a clever, sweet, multifaceted musical.”
Indeed, Fox has wanted to direct A Little Night Music for many years. With its small stage and rudimentary backstage facilities, the Ensemble’s former home in the Alhecama Theatre couldn’t possibly contain a work of this scope. But when he thought about plays “that would allow us to show off what the new space could do,” this one seemed perfect.
The action takes place on a lavish country estate, where a group of mismatched lovers, ex-lovers, and would-be lovers of various ages converge for an awkward but erotically charged weekend.
Even in a slimmed-down, chamber version (in which actors playing smaller roles double as the between-scene singers), the show has a cast of 11, plus a five-piece orchestra. But in something of a perverse twist, the instrumentalists will not go anywhere near the new orchestra pit. Rather, they’ll be onstage, and in period costume (the action takes place in early 20th-century Sweden).
“They’re going to be integrated into the scenery,” Fox explained. “The actors will be moving in and around them. There’s one scene where [one character] plays the cello during a song. The actual cellist will be behind him, and the two of them will mirror each other.”
The production’s look is “more two-dimensional than three-dimensional,” he added. “Pieces of furniture come on and off from the wings. At first, we discussed having complete rooms roll on and off, but we decided that the scenery, being somewhat abstract, served as a beautiful backdrop for the furniture pieces.”
Having been disappointed by other productions, Fox is well aware that A Little Night Music isn’t an easy show to pull off. The tone is tricky: Sondheim famously described the piece as a frothy concoction with knives hidden in the whipped cream. Fox agreed that the lyrics are often quite cutting.
“But I have found productions tend to be overly melancholy,” he said. “Yes, this is Sweden, but it’s Sweden in the summer: The sun doesn’t set. People are out and about, and they’re horny. There’s something magical going on, almost like A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I want to bring out those elements, and I think we’ve got a wonderful cast to do that.”
That cast includes Stephanie Zimbalist, who was lauded for her work in South Coast Repertory’s 2007 production of the musical; longtime musical-theater actor Patrick Cassidy; and veteran screen star Piper Laurie — high-class clowns, indeed.
The remainder of the five-play season is notable for its mix of styles: By design, traditional productions will alternate with more experimental ones. “This whole first season is going to be a trial balloon,” Fox said. “Each piece we’re doing is different, and each may reveal certain quirks in the theater, which will teach us something for the following year.”
Opening February 6 is Good People by David Lindsay-Abaire, author of Rabbit Hole. A naturalistic drama about a desperately impoverished woman from South Boston, it looks at the economic class divide in America, “and whether our ability to rise and succeed is determined by where we grow up,” Fox said. Jenny Sullivan directs.
Following on March 27 is a show that will truly test the theater’s adaptability: Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses. This critically acclaimed, highly creative retelling of various stories from classical mythology — some familiar, some not — takes place in and around a large wading pool. “Some characters actually swim in it,” said Fox, who directs. “But it also has a lyrical, poetic effect, as when a character is slowly moving through the water.”
John Logan’s Red, which opens May 15, focuses on the abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko, and his relationship with a young protégé. A hit in New York and Los Angeles, “it’s a great meditation on art, as well as a mythic story of the son overtaking the father, the student questioning the teacher,” Fox said. Brian Shnipper directs.
The season concludes with a comedy, Looped, in which one famous film actress, Marsha Mason, will portray another, Tallulah Bankhead. Matthew Lombardo’s play is set in a movie-studio recording room in 1965 and focuses on the inebriated actress’s futile attempts to dub a line in her final film. Glenn Jordan directs the production, which opens July 10.
Fox noted that none of the first-season plays are “extremely heavy or dark.” He reasons that lot of new people will be introduced to the company this season, and he wanted to keep the offerings accessible. That said, he promised to present challenging work during upcoming seasons — including, he hopes, Shakespeare.
But first it’s A Little Night Music, which is an appropriate kickoff for yet another reason. It is adapted from a famous film, Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night — a pedigree that subtly echoes the New Vic’s long-ago role as a cinema specializing in art films.
The films may be gone, but artists are reclaiming the space.
Curtain Up! celebrates the completion of the New Vic Theater (33 W. Victoria St.) on Saturday, November 9. All proceeds support ETC’s season. (Main dinner event sold-out.) Tickets for the after-party (9:30pm; open bar, desserts, dancing) are $125. Call 965-5400 x105.