Friday, February 25, 2011

Sex in the Country

City Circle - This weekend, Sondheim's A Little Night Music, directed by Patrick Du Laney, comes to the Englert. The show, part sentimental love story and part madcap romp, won the Tony award for Best Musical in 1973.

A Little Night Music, with words and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, is based on a 1955 Ingmar Bergman film called Smiles of a Summer Night. It deals with the relationships of several couples, and in doing so touches on themes of love and sex, fidelity and betrayal, regret, and second chances. The piece has plenty of wonderful comic moments, which are handled quite well by this company, under the direction of Patrick Du Laney.

The story begins with Fredrik and Anne, a middle-aged lawyer and a naive young girl, who have been married for just under a year. Fredrik laments the fact that their marriage has not yet been consummated. Meanwhile, his son Henrik, who is equally frustrated, has his eyes on his young stepmother. The plot thickens when the glamorous and adulterous actress Desiree Armfeldt, who also happens to be Fredrik's ex-lover, comes to town.

Humbled but determined, Fredrik takes up his case backstage with his old friend, only to be caught in her bedchambers by her lover, the dangerous and jealous dragoon Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm. Fredrik connives his way out of the situation and heads home to his clueless wife, not realizing that the Count's wife is determined to clue her in. All of these intrigues and seductions culmination in a delightful "Weekend in the Country" at the splendid home of Desiree's mother.

The farcical business, textured as it is by Sondheim's carefully structured music, is quite entertaining to watch, and City Circle's company does an excellent job performing it. Krista Neumann, who plays Desiree, and Josh Sazon, who plays Fredrik, are quite well matched. Neumann has a great presence, and she really brings home the suggestive comedy of the piece. Her entrance, decked out in red against the background of the white-clad Liebeslieders, makes a strong impression, and her mature, seductive manner escalates the sexual tension that characterized the earlier "Now/Later/Soon" trio. The show gets off to a fairly slow start, but meeting Desiree is well worth the wait.

Josh Sazon's Frederik is a great counterpoint to this vivacious spirit, characterizes by a quiet, fragile dignity and a wry sense of deadpan humor. In "You Must Meet My Wife" he plays expertly off of Neumann's patter, and his reaction to Michael Petkewec's buffoonish Count Malcolm in the subsequent scene is priceless.

Ben Ward (as Henrik) is also quite funny; in "Later" he does a great job of embodying the young priests' aggravation with his body and his voice, and he navigates all the tricky tones of the song quite well. His anxiety builds steadily in every scene, and it's always refreshing to see him come on and do something new with the character.

Megan Henry, who plays the young Anne, is at first hard to swallow as the ingenue of the piece. She is a bit too sophisticated, a little stiff, very energetic but not quite the bubbly, silly girl suggested in the text. However, when things begin to fall apart in "Every Day a Little Death," it is quite clear why Henry was cast in this role.

Anne, rarely resting for a moment for the majority of Act I, is paralyzed by panic when the cynical Charlotte delivers the news of Fredrik's infidelity. Where one would expect a flighty frenzy we see some very subtle and honest acting; she sits frozen, eyes slightly widening, listening intently as the realization of her situation violently assaults her. It is a touching moment, wonderfully played, without a ghost of overacting. When Anne is called upon to sing, Henry echoes Charlotte's bitter sentiments in her own clear, rich and innocent voice.

As the show goes on, and Charlotte and Anne plot revenge together, she is a delight. Her jealousy is not brooding but playful and energetic, and Anne's character growth is quite rapid in the closing moments of the first act. And her voice, of course, is gorgeous.

Michael Petkewec (Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm) and Charlotte (Katelyn McBride), add some great comic moments to this already quite funny ensemble. "In Praise of Women" is a hoot; the looming, hypocritically jealous soldier comes home to his wife, a shrewd and bitter woman who is quite aware she's being made a fool of, and enlists her in causing trouble for his new rival. The pair are always fun to watch, and McBride in particular is quite witty.

Du Laney's direction shows a great understanding of the way the comic timing should play in this piece, and the relationships between the characters are clear and nuanced. A missed opportunity, however, seemed to be using more of the stage (which had a raised platform with some steps to add levels). Apart from "Weekend in the Country," which was choreographed quite well, much of the musical seemed a little too contained, especially considering the bombastic personalities of some of the characters. "The Miller's Son," sung with great energy by Carrie Houtchins-Witt, was one place in particular where I wanted to see the performer illustrate the song with a lot more movement.

All in all, though, it was a great show. It's always a joy to see Sondheim performed with such skill and enthusiasm, and this piece in particular has just the right mix of bawdy humor and serious reflection. It's an entertaining night of theatre, performed by memorable principles, a solid ensemble, and a dedicated orchestra.

A Little Night Music plays February 25-27, 7:30pm Friday and Saturday (2pm Sunday), at The Englert Theatre in Iowa City. Tickets are $20 ($15 for students and seniors) and can be purchased here.


Anonymous said...

I can't recall the last time I so thoroughly enjoyed a community theatre production. The lighting was also stellar!

Anonymous said...

Badly paced, poorly sung. It was a battle to return for the second act. One of my favorite shows, ruined.

Anonymous said...

Anon #2, I think you're being overly harsh. Admittedly, there were pitch issues. Honestly? It's Sondheim, whose scores are HARD, and it's community theater. Could have been better, sure, and as a Sondheim aficionado I wish it had been, but life appears to be going on.

I'd argue that pacing is as much an issue of the source material as the production -- I had a fair number of small quibbles with this production, but the pacing wasn't one.

Honestly, if you consider a show "ruined" by being decently performed by an enthusiastic, talented amateur cast, you might want to stay away from community theatre.

Anonymous said...

I am an avid fan of local community theatre, and have seen many shows done well by "amature" actors.

I found that this show has a few redeeming qualities...

Charlott - amazing done
Anne- showed growth throught as mentioned in the blog post

I however was not a fan of most of the show it seemed to drag on due to some of the directors choices, and some poorly sung tunes.

Overall we can do better than this... when we stop striving even as amatures to set a high bar everyone misses out. Great actors get bad reviews, great shows get canceled, and even great Directors can sometimes loose there sight.

Ellen said...

It would be nice, if you have the guts, if you would say these things and use your name.

ICTheatreGuy said...

We are changing the format of comments so anonymous comments are not quite as easy as they once were. We would hope that everyone who has a comment feel confident enough in their words to use their name.

Skipperdee said...

That's fair, ICTheatreGuy. For what it's worth, I will happily identify myself as Anonymous #3.

ICTheatreGuy said...

For the record, and you can see this by clicking on my handle, ICTheatreGuy is Matt Falduto.