Theater review: Schenectady Light Opera’s ‘A Little Night Music’ is superb

"A Little Night Music" features a cast of 15 at Schenectady Light Opera Company. Here, part of the ensemble. (Carlton Media Productions)
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"A Little Night Music" features a cast of 15 at Schenectady Light Opera Company. Here, part of the ensemble. (Carlton Media Productions)

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“ ’Send In the Clowns’ is the most popular song Sondheim ever wrote.”

So said critic Steve Cohen in 2014.

And he may be right.

But there are so many dimensions to “A Little Night Music” to admire that you will leave SLOC’s third staging of the musical (after 1978 and 1994) instructed, amused, touched, and admiring.

First, the show itself, 50 this year. Thanks to the clever music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim and a book by Wheeler, we are surprised at every turn.

Tunes teeter on the edge of sprechgesang. Repartee jabs. The pulse of most songs is three-quarter time, fin de siècle waltzes that struggle to fit gowns and galluses, anticipating their own dismemberment in Ravel’s “La Valse.” Times change.

The plot springs from Ingmar Bergman’s “Smiles of a Summer Night,” and Swedish nights are long. Three ironic smiles: on the young, the foolish, and the old. Life winks continuously, and in this story the upper-crusts get their romantic comeuppance.

Be careful what you wish for is another way to put it. Ask elderly courtesan Madame Armfeldt (Pat Brady). Life becomes a hazy memory anyway, as she recounts from her wheelchair throne in “Liaisons.”

The young: her granddaughter, Frederika (Emma O’Kane); her manservant, Frid (Daniel Burns); 20-year-old Henrik Egerman (Michael Burns) and his 18-year-old stepmother, Anne (Ellya Winchester); and Petra (Jalissa Watson), Anne’s servant. All possibilities lie before them.

But fewer options for the foolish, the middle-aged: Desiree Armfeldt (Lindsey Dodd); her former lover, Fredrik Egerman (Shawn Olander-Hahn); her current amour, Carl-Magnus Malcolm (James W. Alexander); and Malcolm’s wife, Charlotte (Elizabeth Corey). They cry, “Ou sont les neiges d’antan?”

Time has passed, but desire remains.

Sondheim and Wheeler brilliantly spin these characters through situations both humorous and sad, arriving at a satisfying denouement.

SLOC’s mounting of this Tony winner is beautifully paced by director Brian Clemente, music director Robert Soricelli, and stage manager J.J. Paul. A delightful singing and dancing quintet (Stephanie Saint Germain, Benjamin Hitrick, Brian Clemente, Christine Meglino, Elizabeth Sherwood-Mack) weaves in and out of the action, commenting like a Greek chorus. Choreography by Ashley & Spencer Lee, captures the elegance and the confusion. The set changes are efficiently done.

The production, by Amy Clark & Haley Van Alstyne, looks good. Period costumes and hairstyles by, respectively, Cheryl Zatt and Elizabeth Sherwood-Mack, work. Clemente’s scenic design has imaginative touches. If I wish the bed were more stable than it was on opening night and the lighting were fine-tuned, I’m sure those concerns will be addressed as the run continues.

The cast: 15, and spot-on. Brady delivers bon mots so drolly that you want to remember them for your own purposes. Michael Burns’s Henrik credibly despairs in “Later” and in a subsequent savage critique of adults.

Anne is a child bride, and Winchester reveals the teen’s need to please, bewilderment about her role, and, finally, exuberance when she can be — well, a teen.

To Watson falls a curious song near show’s end, “The Miller’s Son.” (Read Clemente’s astute comments about it.) She conveys its meaning with superb singing and joyous movement.

As the middle-aged quartet — the characters in greatest emotional, sexual, and moral peril — Alexander, Corey, Hahn, and Dodd are nonpareil.

Alexander’s bluster, scowls, and clarion tenor are an ass’s calling card. Scene-stealer Corey delivers Charlotte’s mixture of pathos and poison with perfect timing, especially in “Every Day a Little Death.”

Olander-Hahn’s smooth baritone and acting chops are as secure as I’ve ever seen them. An amusing song? A tender moment? Check and check.

And the iconic “Send in the Clowns”: on Friday, Dodd hushed the house, then brought it down, not with a star turn but with the character’s heart. Of course, Dodd had prepared us for this moment with every line reading and gesture beforehand.

Indeed, bittersweet smiles on a winter’s night.

“A Little Night Music”

WHERE: Schenectady Light Opera Company, 427 Franklin St.
WHEN: through January 29
HOW MUCH: $32-$25
MORE INFO: 518.730.7370, or sloctheater.org

Categories: Entertainment, Life and Arts, Schenectady

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