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Yanna McIntosh stars as Désirée Armfeldt and Ben Carlson as Fredrik Egerman in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music at the Stratford Festival.

David Hou

3 out of 4 stars

Title
A Little Night Music
Genre
Musical
Directed by
Gary Griffin
Actors
Ben Carlson, Alexis Gordon, Yanna McIntosh, Cynthia Dale
Music
Stephen Sondheim
Lyrics
Stephen Sondheim
Book
Hugh Wheeler
City
Stratford, Ont.
Runs Until
Sunday, October 23, 2016

If you're a fan of Stephen Sondheim the composer, not just Stephen Sondheim the lyricist, then director Gary Griffin's new production of A Little Night Music at the Stratford Festival is absolutely unmissable.

Set in Sweden around 1900, this 1973 musical comedy about three intertwined pairs of lovers features one of Sondheim's most complex and pleasing scores. All the songs are in triple time and fit into the play's time period – so, waltzes, but also sarabandes, mazurkas and even a gigue.

A Little Night Music opens with a very unusual musical gambit – a vocal overture featuring a five-person chorus of singers vocalizing and singing snatches of lyrics along with the orchestra, foreshadowing the story and songs to come. (Sean Arbuckle, Barbara Fulton, Ayrin Mackie, Stephen Patterson and Jennifer Rider-Shaw perform it – and later musical interjections on the nature of love and marriage – with the right mix of euphony and irony.) But this is followed by an exquisite bit of counterpoint, a really bravura beginning to the show – three songs that introduce three main characters and eventually turn into one tune.

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In Now, lawyer Fredrik Egerman (Ben Carlson) enumerates his frustrations at having yet to have consummated his 11-month marriage to his second wife, 18-year-old Anne. Then, in Later, Fredrik's brooding son Henrik (a deliciously deadpan Gabriel Antonacci) sings about the irritation of being merely tolerated. Finally, in Soon, Anne (Alexis Gordon) examines her nervousness about being married to an older man.

When these solos merge into a trio, it's glorious – but I'd never before had the opportunity to appreciate it live in its full gloriousness before. When the Shaw Festival did the show in 2008, it was with a five-person band. And even Trevor Nunn's revival on Broadway in 2009 had an orchestra of just eight members – stars such as Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury no doubt eating into the music budget.

Here in Stratford, however, director of music Franklin Brasz is conducting 19 musicians through Jonathan Tunick's original orchestrations – and the sound is so sumptuous that at times tears came to my eyes. For those who care about the musical part of musical theatre, the Stratford Festival has become a must-visit destination; few other places can afford, or are willing to pay for, this sound these days.

But what of the theatre part? A Little Night Music features many of Stratford's best actors from both its musical and classical companies – leading to a mix of acting styles that sometimes feels complementary, but occasionally clashing.

The plot builds to a weekend at the country home of the elderly Madame Armfeldt (Rosemary Dunsmore, perhaps too young for the part, definitely too sprightly) – mother of the stage actress Desirée (Yanna McIntosh).

Desirée's two lovers, Fredrik and Count Carl-Magnus (Juan Chioran), show up with their wives in tow. Fredrik has been invited as part of Desirée's plot to win him away from his too-young wife, while the militaristic and misogynist Count Carl-Magnus has crashed as part of a plot by his wife, Charlotte (Cynthia Dale), and Anne to keep their husbands to themselves.

Carlson and Chioran provide the most sure-footed comic performances of the evening – the former thanks to well-deployed wit, the latter due to perfectly wielded witlessness. I could have watched them face off all night.

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As Desirée, McIntosh also demonstrates a good sense of comic timing – and is quite moving when showing her vulnerability in the musical's most famous song, Send in the Clowns. She acts better than she sings, definitely, but then Sondheim wrote the song for a non-singer.

Hugh Wheeler's book and Sondheim's lyrics combine romanticism with sophisticated cynicism – but there are also some seriously sexy moments here too, thanks to the chemistry between young actors such as Antonacci, Gordon, Matt Alfano as a servant named Frid and Sara Farb as the maid Petra. Farb delivers a particularly delicious performance of her big song, The Miller's Son, that in a weaker production you'd say stole the show.

On an oddly industrial set by Debra Hanson, Griffin's production doesn't perfectly nail the comedy due to an unevenness in where it is pitched. While the men send up men quite brilliantly, the women are hit and miss. In the cases of Gordon and Dale, in particular, there are moments where they seem to be playing characters – and others where they go so broad as to turn into caricature. Griffin's directorial hand seems to blame – he's added in bits of business here and there that seem better suited to farce than comedy of manners and undermine most of the actors at some time.

And yet, if the comedic heights of Griffin's production don't quite match the musical ones, Stratford has still crafted a must-hear night of music and drama that provides big, not little, pleasure.

A Little Night Music continues at Stratford's Avon Theatre until Oct. 23 (stratfordfestival.ca).

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