The Arden Hits a High Note with A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC

Arden Theatre Company concludes its outstanding 2012-13 season with A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, Stephen Sondheim’s transcendent musical exposé of love, liaisons, and life in 1900 Sweden. At once operatic and intimate, sophisticated and witty, the play made its Broadway debut in 1973, receiving both the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and the Tony Award for Best Musical. On opening night of the Arden’s magnificent award-worthy revival of Sondheim’s magnum opus, one illustrious member of the audience asked me, “Am I in Philadelphia or on Broadway?” It truly was a transportive experience.

Ben Dibble as Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm and Karen Peakes as Countess Charlotte Malcolm in Arden’s A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (Photo credit: Mark Garvin)
Ben Dibble as Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm and Karen Peakes as Countess Charlotte
Malcolm in Arden’s A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (Photo credit: Mark Garvin)

The structure is complex, interweaving allusions to an array of historic media and masterworks. Adapted from filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s seminal partner-swapping romantic comedy of 1955, Smiles of a Summer Night, the play’s title is a literal translation of Mozart‘s “little serenade” Eine kleine Nachtmusik, and its recurrent semi-operatic quintet takes its inspiration from a classical Greek chorus (here comprised of the excellent Derrick Cobey, Sarah Kleeman, Elisa Matthews, Eric Jon Mahlum, and Teri Bibb). Composed in the haunting ¾-time of a waltz, but filled with unconventional polyphonic passages, pitch changes, and contrapuntal songs, the demanding score requires an exceptional vocal range, well-matched voices, and consummate control. And that’s precisely what it got with music director Eric Ebbenga at the Arden; there was not a sour note in the cast’s or the orchestra’s superb performance.

Under Terrence J. Nolen’s seasoned direction (this is his twelfth Sondheim production at the Arden), the large ensemble of fifteen, portraying three generations and multiple couples and couplings, never lacks clarity in defining the characters’ personalities or socio-sexual inter-relationships, while capturing the European mores of the cultivated Belle Époque and the universal regrets felt, and knowledge gained, with maturation. Each actor brings depth, humor, and artistry to his or her role, from Sally Mercer’s storied Madame Armfeldt and her worldly daughter Desiree, played by Grace Gonglewski, to Karen Peakes’ caustic Countess Charlotte and Ben Dibble’s vain philandering husband Count Carl-Magnus. Christopher Patrick Mullen is emotionally nuanced as Fredrik Egerman, and Patti-Lee Meringo is convincingly childish and frivolous as his much younger second wife Anne. Rounding out the fine cast are Jim Hogan as Fredrik’s repressed son Henrik, Alex Keiper and Jake Blouch as the lusty maid and butler, and Sara Fisher as Desiree’s charmingly precocious daughter Frederika.

The artistic design, with its grand proscenium stage, elegant set, and seamless scene changes (James Kronzer), meticulous period costumes (Rosemarie E. McKelvey), skillful sound and choreography (Jorge and Nikki Cousineau), and exquisite lighting (Thom Weaver)–employing glorious colors, strong chiaroscuro, dramatic silhouetting, and theatrical footlights–creates an enchanting mood for the romantic romp through stately interiors and refined summertime grounds. Everything in this brilliant production is absolutely pitch-perfect.

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Directed by Terrence J. Nolen
May 23–June 30, 2013
Arden Theatre Company
F. Otto Haas Stage
40 N. 2nd Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106

Previously published on Stage Magazine.

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