In Fairmount Center for the Arts’s new production of “A Little Night Music,” Stephen Sondheim’s musical gem about the follies of human behavior in matters of the heart, one moment moved me more than any other: Late in the second act, a tremulous Tracee Patterson as over-the-hill actress Desiree Armfeldt sings the plaintive “Send in the Clowns,” a rueful, bittersweet song of regret and disappointment.
Her tearful face etched with the painful awareness of self, the poignant song gave me a visceral thrill as the music and hauntingly obscure lyrics leapt to life.
Created by Sondheim (music and lyrics) with book by Hugh Wheeler, the Tony award-winning 1973 musical comedy reflects the changing perspectives on love and marriage and the angst of middle age. The Fairmount Center’s production is at Mayfield Village Civic Center through Nov. 13.
There are other highs and a few lows in this ambitious production, ably directed by musical theater veteran Fred Sternfeld and featuring a large ensemble of credentialed actors with fine voices. However, what should be a buoyant and seamless progression of scenes is hampered by an overcrowded, small, cramped stage; noisy and clunky scene changes; laggard pacing; and some uneven acting. The almost three-hour show, including intermission, moves slowly, especially in what should be a farcical and frenetic second act.
The demands of Sondheim’s operetta-like musical, with its duets and three- and five-part contrapuntal harmonies, are considerable. The well-directed cast works hard to meet the requirements. The star of the show is Sondheim’s genius: a lush, polyphonic score and brilliantly sardonic lyrics.
Set in 1900 Sweden, the story, based on Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” centers on three mismatched couples. Middle-aged lawyer Fredrik Egerman (Matthew Wright) is married to 18-year-old virgin Anne (Anna Bradley). After 11 months of unconsummated marriage, Fredrik seeks the advice of his former lover, actress Desiree Armfeldt (Patterson), whose current paramour is the insanely jealous Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (James F. Love), who is married to the long-suffering Charlotte Malcolm (Katherine DeBoer). Meanwhile, Fredrik’s 19-year-old son Henrik (Luke Wehner), a dour seminary student, is hopelessly in love with his stepmother.
The many hoops these mismatched lovers go through before finding equilibrium with the right partners form the spine of the story.
Trad A Burns cleverly sets the stage with large, moveable panels covered in sheet music from Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” from whom Sondheim co-opts the show’s title.
The “Opening Waltz,” choreographed by Bebe Weinberg-Katz, introduces the company and serves as an overview of the entire play, in dance and song. Benjamin Gantose bathes the dancers in the dappled sunlight of a summer evening.
Special mention must be made of The Liebeslieder Singers, who serve as a Greek chorus with uniformly fine voices. They are: William Clarence Marshall, Claire Connelly, Bernadette Hisey, Justin W. Williamson and Lydia Hall.
Musical director David Williams and orchestra give the rich score its due. “A Weekend in the Country,” a masterpiece of contrapuntal harmony, ends the long first act on a strong note. Director Sternfeld’s freeze scenes in this number and others are most effective.
Craig Tucker’s parade of period costumes includes a striking variation on white in the calamitous dinner scene.
Wright is excellent as Fredrik, the slightly ridiculous man in midlife crisis who can’t decide whether to ravish his child bride or take a nap in “Now.” The song is packaged with withholding wife Anne’s making vain promises in “Soon” and moody Henrik’s singing of the sting of dismissal in “Later.” Unfortunately, the rippling three-part-patter of the combined songs sounded off-kilter.
In an effort to win back the one true love of her life, Desiree prevails upon her mother Madame Armfeldt (Dorothy Silver) to invite Fredrik and his family to her country estate. Things spin out of control when Carl-Magnus and his wife show up uninvited as well.
Silver delivers a quietly subdued portrait of the imperious and forgetful Madame Armfeldt, an ex-courtesan who sings of the lost art of love as a profession in “Liasons.” Cara Corrigan is appealing as Desiree’s 14-year-old daughter Fredrika Armfeldt, who openly declares her illegitimacy and broadmindedness to the uptight Henrik.
DeBoer is perfect as Charlotte, who has a plan to teach her philandering husband a lesson. Baritone Love has a great voice as the pompous count who believes a civilized man can accept infidelity in a wife but not a mistress.
Bradley is a strong vocalist as the vain and giddy child bride Anne, but her character is less convincing. Wehner also fails to convince as the judgmental, repressed stepson who lusts after her.
Natalie Green sparkles as the earthy maid Petra, who sings of having many men and lots of love affairs before settling down in “The Miller’s Son.”
“A Little Night Music” is a bold leap for Sternfeld and company. Despite some blips, the show is well worth seeing.
WHAT: Fairmount Center for the Arts presents “A Little Night Music”
WHERE: Mayfield Village Civic Center, 6622 Wilson Mills Road, Mayfield Village
WHEN: Through Nov. 13
TICKETS & INFO: 440-338-3171 or fairmountcenter.tix.com