Sondheim's "A Little Night Music" launches Gateway season

Where are the Clowns? Already here.

A night at the opera. Photo: Emily Cooper

The last time (which was also the first time) that I encountered this story was in 1963.

I’d played hooky from my boarding school and hitchhiked to a neighbouring county to go see Swedish cinéaste Ingmar Bergman’s comic masterpiece, Smiles of a Summer Night – an illicit outing for me, joyous as a jailbreak.

What sense could I have made back then, as a geeky 16-year-old loner, of such a roundelay bedroom farce set in Belle Époque Scandinavia?

Yet the movie reassured me that puberty just might be survivable. One could grow into some sort of secret wisdom that allowed adults to roll with the punches of sex and sentiment, accepting it all with baffled bemusement.

A decade later, Broadway mage Steven Sondheim distilled this elixir onto the musical stage in A Little Night Music. But by that time I was too broke to afford theatre tickets and, anyway, quite convinced (little did I know!) that I’d already attained enough worldly wisdom to need no booster charge. Still, I marvelled at Sondheim’s chutzpah in tackling Bergman’s script in musical form, even with the benefit of a Broadway production budget.

How much more impressive, then, for New Westminster’s own Patrick Street Productions (PSP) to bring A Little Night Music to the stage of Richmond’s Gateway Theatre, more than half a century after its New York debut, with an all-local cast, crew and funding base.

It works, though, brilliantly. PSP’s dozen players and their backstage enablers serve up a winsome season opener for Gateway’s 2017-2018 line up. 

Making virtues of his assorted necessities, stage and lighting designer Alan Brodie fits the whole rococo drama onto a single Art Deco set, with even onstage room for conductor Sean Bayntun’s concert grand and accompanying string-and-woodwind quintet.

The action is intercut with a clever flimflam of gauzy floor-to-ceiling veils that the players themselves swish, reef or unfurl to denote their entries, exits and scene changes. Jessica Bayntun’s costumes make smart use of period-appropriate underthings – fetchingly suggestive on more than one level.

Apt déshabille for the risqué storyline. It revolves around an ageing lawyer (Warren Kimmel), his virginal child bride (Arinea Hermans), his priggish adult son (Caleb Di Pomponio) and his long-lost first love (Katey Wright). A fortuitous reencounter with his Old Flame – now a slightly past prime starlet of the touring repertory stage – plunges our reluctant lawyer into a deadly rivalry with her current lover, a pistol-happy dragoon (Nick Fontaine).

Things come to a head on a weekend at the country manor of the starlet’s dowager mother (Patti Allan), who offers a Midsummer’s Eve toast in a mysterious truth-serum wine. Under its influence, both the lawyer’s young bride and his seminarian son bare their innermost hearts to the dowager’s guileless pre-teen ward (Elizabeth Irving), who points out the obvious: that the two young people have carried a torch for each other all along.

They elope, and our lawyer sees no reason to go on living. So, goaded by the dragoon’s embittered wife (Lindsay Warnock), he allows his soldierly rival to challenge him to actual – if inconclusive – gunplay. But, in the wake of this near-death experience and unexpectedly relieved by the surprise elopement, he is at last ready to settle down into a late-life ménage with his Old Flame and the young ward of the manor (who may or may not be the love child of their earlier liaison).

Got that? A bit convoluted, perhaps, but pretty much standard, frothy bedroom farce. The difference, though, is in the psychological nuance, and that’s where Sondheim’s wizardry shines through. Ensemble pieces dominate his music and lyrics, allowing us to peer into the minds and motivations of several characters at once – a feat impossible in film even for a genius like Bergman.

This is not a hummable, foot-tapping, sing-along score. Rather, it’s in intricate triple metre (3/4 time or complex multiples thereof), with correspondingly dactylic lyrics suitable for bantering byplay. And director/choreographer Peter Jorgensen, PSP’s co-founder, keeps his cast moving accordingly in an almost continuous flow of waltz, minuet and mazurka paces that reflect their mental interactions.

His players rise to the challenge, starting with his female lead (and PSP co-founder) Katey Wright. Co-star Kimmel, last seen here starring in Bard’s Merchant of Venice and Shylock, displays more facets of his polymath talent dancing with the best of them and singing such nuanced lyrics in an ensemble context.

Hard to single out other standout performances among such a diadem of gems, but one crowning jewel was Allan’s portrayal of the presiding dowager as a kind of jaded fairy godmother.

And now, with benefit of hindsight, I’ve come to understand that you’re never too old – or too young – for a booster shot of baffled bemusement. Go and collect a dose at the Gateway, now through October 21st.

 

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