“Isn't it bliss? Don't you approve?” asks Desirée in the opening refrain of the money-song “Send in the Clowns” in Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s 1973 Tony Award-winning musical “A Little Night Music.”
“Well, for the most part” is the honest answer after watching a respectable but not remarkable production of this musical at Lakeland Civic Theatre under Martin Friedman’s direction.
The show, set during the turn of the 19th century, is a melancholy ode to discovering love, reviving love and outliving love.
“Send in the Clowns” appears well into the second act, after Desirée Armfeldt (Trinidad Snider) – the worldly Scandinavian seductress who is now a flirtatious middle-aged actress – comes to the painful realization that the man she is with, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Ian Atwood), means nothing to her. And the dream of reuniting with her now-married former lover, Fredrik Egerman (Rob Albrecht), is just a delusion.
Actually, everyone in this musical – The Count and his beleaguered wife Charlotte (Neely Gevaart), Fredrik and his very young wife Anne (Sarah Clare), and their studious son Henrik (Eric Fancher) and the vivacious maid Petra (Meg Martinez) – is with the wrong partner. From the first song to the show’s “Finale,” with plenty of outstanding tunes in between, this harsh reality plays itself out to the accompaniment of a superb 12-piece orchestra under Jordan Cooper’s direction.
The problem with this production is that it does not look nearly as lush or as interesting as it sounds.
Set designer Aaron Benson has hung a large scrim as a backdrop on which nothing is projected and constructed a stage on the stage on which little takes place, leaving an empty performance space where chairs, benches and lattice set pieces are obtrusively loaded in and out by the actors themselves. There is little in the way of Adam Ditzel’s lighting design to add to the production’s storytelling.
Kelsey Tomlinson’s colorful and rather avant-garde period costuming offers us something to look at while Jennifer Justice’s choreography, which could add some interesting imagery and action to the performance, is underutilized.
And the five strolling minstrels – Robin Woods Davis, Robert Pierce, Michaela Bennett, Patrick Carroll and Jessica Pringle – who serve as the play’s narrative voice enter and exit as obtrusively as the furnishings and offer little in the way of charm or presence to accentuate the show’s visual scheme.
Fortunately, the featured performers are terrific.
As the “other woman” in their own husband’s life, both Clare as Anne and Gevaart as Charlotte find the humanity and all of the humor in this romantic comedy and their duet – the tragic and brilliantly conceived “Every Day a Little Death” – is breathtaking.
Portrayals of the bombastic Count, the intense young Henrik, and the cad Fredrik can all too easily focus on those singular characteristics. But Atwood, Fancher and Albrecht, respectively, are remarkably accessible, likable and in great voice. Albrecht, in particular, solidifies his appeal when he sings “Now” – a ditty about how best to seduce his young bride – and “You Must Meet My Wife,” which he sings to Desirée.
As Desirée, Snider is a delight. Her perfectly natural, unaffected performance gives richness and dimension to the character. And while her overly emotional rendition of “Send in the Clowns” obscures some of Sondheim’s best work, it is a powerful and moving performance nonetheless.
Unexpected gems also surface in this production.
Elyse Pakiela as young Fredrika, Desirée’s child, is immensely charming, always energetic and remarkably earnest when delivering lines. And when Mim Goloboff as Madame Armfeldt, Desirée’s mother, reflects with a sense of resigned despair that she let love pass her by, her character becomes heroic rather than tragic.
As Petra, the maid who turns a life of limited choices into quite the opposite, Martinez is enchanting. Her handling of Sondheim’s very challenging “The Miller’s Son” is spot-on.
Best of all is Frank Ivancic as the relatively silent and stealth servant Frid, whose sly smile while observing all the folly of those around him and after coupling with Petra in the bushes adds just the right comedic accent to those moments.
Friedman’s creative vision for his productions often turns a minimum amount of construction into highly stylized and attractive scenic design that complements the playwright's intent and the talent on stage. Not this time. To borrow the final line from “Send in the Clowns,” "Well, maybe next year.”