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'A Little Night Music' Brings Romance to the Theatre

Celebrate Valentine's Day with the Latest IRT Production

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'A Little Night Music' Brings Romance to the Theatre

James Rank and Sylvia McNair in 'A Little Night Music'

Photo by Zach Rosing.

It's a story of lost love and the haunting question of "What if?" that drives A Little Night Music, currently playing at the Indiana Repertory Theatre. When love is lost, only to be found again, do you try again or do you let go once and for all? This timeless tale of love, loss and human folly is a full-scale musical unlike anything the Indiana Repertory Theatre has produced in recent years.

The Story

A Little Night Music is based on Ingar Bergman's only comedic film, Smiles of a Summer Night. That film, was based upon the book, written by Hugh Wheeler. Music and lyrics for A Little Night Music are by Stephen Sondheim. The story is set in Sweden, around 1900.

The story centers around attorney Fredrik Egerman and his teenage bride, Anne. Despite not having consummated their marriage, the couple seem happy enough until one evening, they attend a play featuring the famous actress, Desiree Armfeldt. It becomes clear to Anne that the two had once had an affair and she is upset with the way the two are looking at each other. Fredrik's own son, Henrik lives in the family home with the couple and immediately seeks to comfort Anne. He is also, clearly in love with his step mother, whom is actually one year younger than himself. As one would expect, Fredrik cannot stay away from Desiree and before long, they spend an evening together. Their evening, however, is disrupted by her current lover, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, whom also has a wife at home. The plot thickens, when his wife, Countess Charlotte informs Anne of both their husbands' affairs with the famed actress and the two plot to teach Desiree a lesson.

Stephen Sondheim is, perhaps, America's greatest living composer and lyricist. In addition to this musical, his works include A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Follies, Sweeney Todd, Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods. He also wrote the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy. Nearly the entire musical is written in 3/4 time, waltz music, and is complex with lots of high notes and pitch changes. Much of it is sung in an operatic style. The musical's most famous song, "Send in the Clowns" is sung by Desiree.

The Performance
There was a lot of excitement surrounding Opening Night of A Little Night Music. For one thing, the IRT doesn't produce a lot of musicals and for another, a grant had made the elaborate set and costumes possible. In addition, the star of the show, Sylvia McNair is a Grammy-winning performer and known throughout the theatre world. So, the bar was raised pretty high. I was unfamiliar with the musical and didn't even know what it was about. Once I learned I was going, I purposely didn't research it, so it would be new to me.

In the opening scene, five singers come in throughout the theatre with incredible gusto and big operatic singing. It felt over-the-top and uncomfortable to me, possibly because I was expecting a quiet, romantic musical and partly because, the operatic style completely took me by surprise. Once the shock of it wore off the singers (for whom I never particularly warmed) left the scene, the real story began and I grew more interested. I typically love musicals, but my initial reaction to the overture was strong.

The story is entertaining and kept my attention. The lyrics and dialogue are witty and honest and surprisingly, sometimes a bit scandalous. There are references to sex and a lot of comedy. The musical is an honest look at love, life and the marching on of time and how that affects one's outlook. In the end, it is touching, heartfelt and thought-provoking.

The Cast
The star of the show, Sylvia McNair, is known for her talent. She possesses a beautiful voice and her portrayal of Desiree is open and honest. Desiree is not hiding a thing and she is unapologetic about the unconventional life she's led or her relationships with many men. But she is also, down deep, a person who believes in love and in her later years, desires the chance to finally commit to one men. McNair plays Desiree just right.

Jacquelynne Fontaine plays a sarcastic and witty Countess Charlotte Malcolm. Her portrayal is hilarious and also, touching. As a woman dealing with the long-term infidelity of the husband she loves, her struggle is real and painful. Fontaine is a former Miss California and her beauty is apparent, but her talent as an actress is the real scene-stealer.

James Rank is the leading male role, playing opposite McNair. As Fredrik, he is a man delighted with his trophy wife, but sexually frustrated and wistful for the heady romance he experiences with Desiree. He is foolish and love sick and yet in the end, redeemed. Grace Morgan and Nicholas Fitzer portray Anne and Henrik - both silly and young. The innocence of their youth draws an excellent parallel to the experience and painful pasts of Fredrik, Desiree, the Count and Countess.

The Set
While the set is fairly simplistic, it epitomizes elegance. The white birch trees set against the blue stage depicts wistful summer evenings. Indoor furniture is sparse but elaborate, conveying the rich fabrics and lines of the time period, without cluttering the stage. There is an outdoor silhouette of the Armfeldt home that opens up into the dining room during Act II. Also during Act II, the most impressive props make their appearance. The two wooden cars which take the Malcolms and Egermans to the country estate of Madame Armfeldt are impressive. The characters arrive on stage in the cars, which are true to the period. Soft lighting is used to denote the summer moonlight and sets the mood for romance.The Costumes
I think the costumes in theatre are as important to me as the production itself. What a character wears says a lot about them, quieting revealing personality. Because of the larger budget, it was clear that more emphasis was put on the elaborate dresses and the men's tailored suits. The young Anne and Desiree's daughter, Fredrika, wear loose, flouncy dresses in pastel colors, displaying their youth, while the more mature women wear more constricting corseted dresses in bright reds and black. The costumes are a feast for the eyes.The Review
A Little Night Music was not what I expected. That's not to say it wasn't enjoyable, it just constantly took me by surprise. I was expecting sweet and soft romantic language, undying declarations of love. Instead, it was a surprisingly realistic look at love. Sometimes men marry trophy wives half their age. Sometimes husbands and wives commit adultery. Young love is full of folly. Old people look back on lost love with regret. And perhaps the most important truth of all - the desire for true love never dies. I appreciated this musical for something that it isn't always touted for - its honesty.

A Little Night Music is unlike any musical I've ever seen. It's full of sexual innuendo I'd expect to see in modern day movies - not 1900's parlor rooms. At the same time, its underlying theme is about the undying quest for true love. And it's funny. The witty lyrics keep the audience laughing and and the heart-wrenching favorite, "Send in the Clowns" will draw a tear to the eye. For me, experiencing this musical was an evening of surprises and I hope when you see it, you'll appreciate it as well.

If you're looking for something to do this Valentine's Day, the IRT's production of A Little Night Music runs through February 22 on IRT OneAmerica Stage. The show runs 2 hours and 45 minutes with one intermission. Tickets range in price from $35-55. For more information, contact the IRT at 317-635-5252.

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