More and more it seems that music theatre is the programming king at both Shaw and Stratford. The value of name recognition is proving itself mightily in the 2008 season: Wonderful Town, The Music Man, Cabaret, and—most recently in the “intimate” confines of the Courthouse Theatre—the melody-rich, lyric-smart masterpiece from Stephen Sondheim: A Little Night Music. The problem is, there’s precious little music.
The orchestration has been whittled down (some would say gutted) by Jason Jestadt to a quintet: upright piano—not room on the stage or the budget for a grand; Ryan de Souza does a commendable job making the instrument sound better than it is; Anna Redekop’s viola seems lonely without its higher-strung friends; cellist Alex Grant provides much of the instrumental engine and soars with aplomb through Henrik’s solo; Richard Thomson turns in a first-class effort on clarinet/bass clarinet, but his flute interventions lack body and convincing phrase endings; in the hands of Christian Sharpe the bassoon offers much punch to the busy score. Paul Sportelli stands and conducts. Unfortunately, without direct eye contact with most of the singers most of the time, the ensemble frequently comes across as good enough rather than “Wow! That was snappy, fun and in tune.”
Ah the “business” of art where “intimate” (used by both Sportelli and director Morris Panych in their house-program notes) is code for “inexpensive.” Rolling trees with the appearance of hat racks—all of the leaves hung on the back wall (Ken MacDonald designed the set)—added to this “economical” production. All of which could have been forgiven if only the voices were of the calibre required to do justice to the songs.
Any repertory company whose primary mission (and number of productions) is theatre, must first and foremost have members who can act. The “triple threat” (act/sing/dance) is not rare, but those so blessed are soon making considerably more cash doing year-long tours of Mamma Mia et al. From a musical point of view, the Shaw’s leads simply didn’t have the skill sets required to put the music back into the theatre.
As the lascivious actor Desirée Armfeldt, Goldie Semple nailed the characterization but couldn’t find a legato line all night, resorting to “speak-sing” just to get through. “Send in the Clowns”—the dramatic showstopper—soon had many humming along in hopes that some of their tone might spill over to the stage. Justin Stadnyk as Henrik Egerman, the theology student who’s battling his hormones (and losing to the point that he covets his ever-so-young stepmother), gives his songs a whirl (notably “Later”) yet can’t pray his way into the upper reaches which, unintentionally, works as an interesting metaphor: the baritone trying to be something he’s not: a tenor. Much, much more successful is his miming of the cello solo where, if the musicians had been in the pit … he might have “fooled” many of the patrons.
The equally faithless, dueling-for-the-same-woman (Desirée) men fared a little better. Playing Fredrik Egerman, George Masswohl convinces at every turn, needing only the ever-illusive range of tone and variety of dynamics to bring this performance up to Broadway standards. He’s married Anne, an eighteen-year-old (Robin Evan Willis) to rekindle his youth: after 11 months of “bliss” they have yet to consummate. All of this leads to “Soon,” a trio which comes across as “just so” when a much deeper message lurks untapped in the vocalization. Thom Allison serves up the lecherous Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm with chauvinistic aplomb and his duet (“It Would Have Been Wonderful”) with Fredrik oozes with ironic fun.
The show’s grand dame comes in the personage of Donna Belleville. She plays the Armfeldt matriarch with a delicious combination of self-appointed regaleness (she’s outlived countless lovers and husbands) and comedic surety that creates the funniest moments of the Unfaithful ‘R’ Us storyline. Sadly, like her promiscuous daughter, Apollo has not blessed her with the tools required to carry a song (“Liaisons”).
Thank goodness for the chorus (a.k.a the Libeslieders—lovesongs indeed) and Julie Martell’s alluring portrayal of Petra.
Panych and choreographer Valerie Moore employ this Greek chorus to, literally, set the stage, move the action along (pushing both Henrik and Fredrik into love) and sing up a storm—most especially Jeff Madden whose flexible, well-contoured tenor lines must soon find their way to a lead role.
At the end of Act I, everything comes to a head with one of Sondheim’s finest numbers: “A Weekend in the Country.” Like much of this production, it was fun to watch, but the rhythmic tension—derived from the syncopated lyrics—failed to find its groove, sending the capacity crowd smiling not glowing with zest into intermission.
Here’s to a moratorium on “intimate” renderings of big-box (as in box office) imports from the Great White Way. JWR