(This review is by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Andrew J. Friedenthal.)
A Little Night Music, the now-classic Stephen Sondheim musical with a book by Hugh Wheeler, is perhaps the perfect springtime production. With its set-up of multiple spouses and lovers finding themselves on the same country estate, and its follow-through on the hijinks – both comedic and tragic – that ensue, the show sits comfortably on the cusp between the renewed vitality of springtime and the dolorous languor of summer heat.
Austin Playhouse’s new production of A Little Night Music, playing through June 26, is a fairly by-the-books presentation of Sondheim and Wheeler’s musical, with some delightfully witty and acerbic performances.
The show sounds wonderful, with an excellent orchestra (conducted by Cliff Bond, musical direction by Lyn Koenning) providing a backdrop to performers, including a quintet of remarkable singers (Jerreme Rodriguez, Sarah Fleming Walker, Devin Medley, Richard Roberts, and Natalie Cummings) who serve as a sort of Greek Chorus. Their amazing vocals are reflected in the heartfelt, emotional singing of many of the performers, particularly Connor Barr as the melancholy moralist Henrik and Boni Hester as the semi-hedonistic, yet also soulfully earnest, actress Desiree Armfeldt.
Barr and Hester give strong performances between the songs, as well, hitting the acidic highs and lows that Sondheim and Wheeler’s text demands. Brian Coughlin, as the bombastic and slightly buffoonish Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, brings a boisterous, overly-testosteroned presence to the stage that provides some much-needed comedic absurdity, while Lara Wright, as his sarcastically long-suffering wife Charlotte Malcolm, provides the most emotionally and comically-centered performance of the evening, a highlight of the production.
On the whole, however, director Don Toner’s vision of A Little Night Music feels a bit too constrained. Part of this is simply a question of space – with a cast of almost 20 performers, Austin Playhouse’s stage appears rather tiny and cramped whenever more than four or five actors are present in a scene.
Along the same vein, the tone of the production also seems cramped, never quite achieving the madcap energy demanded by the story nor the whip-smart delivery needed to make the Oscar Wilde-sequel dialogue truly land, while at the same time never becoming quite as tragic or bittersweet as the more elegiac moments require.
A Little Night Music is a musical that lives and breathes on the edge of a knife, delicately teetering between the extremes of bedroom farce and Greek tragedy. Although Austin Playhouse’s production doesn’t quite maintain this balancing act, the text and performances still resonates, bringing to life a story of the desperate search for love and the ways in which it can sometimes only be found under the smile of the summer night.