Cutline: Sara Farb shines as Petra in A Little Night Music (David Hou Photography)
A Little Night Music
Stratford Festival 2016
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night
Directed by Gary Griffin
Music direction by Franklin Brasz
Approximate running time: two hours and 45 minutes (with one 20-minute interval)
June 21-October 23
Reviewed by Geoff Dale
For the moment try to divorce yourself from the grim reality that Judy Collins recorded Stephen
Sondheim’s sombre Send in the Clowns back in 1975, reducing it for many to the status of tired
old chestnut over the 41 years.
Now focus on the present day revitalization of that musically complex song in the Stratford
Festival’s energetic 2016 presentation of A Little Night Music, a rather lengthy production
featuring, as would be expected, some theatrical nuggets from this company.
For those not acquainted with the origins of the work, it was inspired by Swedish filmmaker
Ingmar Bergman’s lighthearted romance from 1955 Smiles of a Summer Night, a movie that
literally put the writer/director on the cinematic world map, won for best poetic humour and
snagged a nomination for best film at the Palme d’Or at Cannes the next year.
Please, no need to adjust your glasses, the mention of Bergman and lighthearted romance in the
same sentence was indeed no mistake, just not the norm for the acclaimed director/writer. While
he trotted out some dark classics like The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, he did have a gift
– though not often used – for humour.
Sondheim then added large sprinkling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and other works and
voila A Little Night Music – his tasty skewering of the institution of marriage – was born.
Apologies for the cliché but the rest is history.
Set in 1900 Sweden, the lengthy act one, crying out at times for some editing, demonstrated that
not everyone in the Stratford Festival cast possesses the acknowledged vocal skills of the
production’s nominal star Cynthia Dale, who as Countess Charlotte Malcolm showcases her
considerable talent both as a top flight singer and an adept stage comic actor able to swiftly toss
about one-liners with great ease.
That minor shortfall is to be expected. So musical director Franklin Brasz counters by making
great usage of the elegantly dressed five-member Greek chorus (Sean Arbuckle, Barbara Fulton,
Ayrin Mackie, Stephen Patterson and Jennifer Rider-Shaw) that periodically interjects itself into
the proceedings to guide the audience through the essentials of the storyline.
Meanwhile, the graceful opening waltz highlights the swift exchange of romantic partners in a
sort of choreographic musical chairs, enhanced by the glorious offerings of 19 carefully selected
musicians – largely piano, woodwinds and strings – conducted by Brasz.
Some have suggested over the years that the composer’s preference for the ¾ time signature (the
waltz) is his clever way of stressing that the number three is incompatible – or at least should be
– in the marriage arrangement. Hence the actors are generally divided into awkward trio
arrangements, complemented by the score.
The prime example of the shaky state of marriage here is provided by middle-aged lawyer
Fredrik Egerman’s strange marriage – more of a mid-life crisis – to his virginal 18-year- old
trophy wife Anne (Alexis Gordon). An oddly quirky marital union without any hint of carnal
activity for 11 months, the joke becomes tired before too long, thankfully breaking away into
Much more amusing and deftly handled by the principles are the ill-fated romances surrounding
fading but still glamorous/sexually active star Desiree Armfeldt (the superb vocalist/actress
Yanna McIntosh), her lovesick suitor and former lover Fredrik along with her current beau
Count Carl-Magnus Magnum, shamelessly and openly cheating on his wife the Countess in a
hysterically funny buffoonish manner by Juan Chioran.
As the cloddish self-consumed military man Chioran, a standout in A Chorus Line, is an
unexpected treasure, parading about the stage in a marvelously awkward fashion that conjures up
the vision of a stylistic physical comedic marriage of John Cleese (ala Basil Fawlty) and Richard
McMillan, the scene-stealing actor well-remembered by Stratford audiences for his roles in
numerous Gilbert and Sullivan productions of the ‘80s.
Meanwhile McIntosh’s heartfelt treatment of Send in the Clowns is truly a well-deserved show
stopper that firmly places the number back in proper context as a soul-searching personal
reflection on past romantic glories, losses and mistakes.
While there are considerable moments in the show’s almost three-hour duration to choose
favorite moments, actors, scenes and even those that don’t quite make the mark, one standout
throughout is unquestionably the tireless Sara Farb (also appearing as Lucy in The Lion, the
Witch and the Wardrobe) as the feisty/worldly Petra, maid and close friend of Anne.
Her vocal command and accompanying physical dexterity when performing the second-act The
Miller’s Son – laden with its numerous references to life, luck and love - is well worth the price
of admission and much more. Under the capable guidance of director Gary Griffin, Farb provides
the complete package of comedy and drama with shades of pathos – giving the production that
little extra bit of adrenaline necessary for a Sondheim classic.
An audience pleaser that nabs *** out of four stars.