KINGSTON, R.I. — The Theatre Department at the University of Rhode Island delivers a big night of music and drama for its closing production of the 2018-2019 season, with Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music.” In recent years, URI Theatre’s annual musical has become a must-see, with crowd-pleasing renditions of newer shows like “Spring Awakening,” “Legally Blonde,” and “Mary Poppins.” This spring, under the direction of Department Chair Paula McGlasson, Sondheim’s stunning musical comes to life in through an impressive integration of music, staging, design, and acting.
In “A Little Night Music,” Hugh Wheeler’s book and Sondheim’s masterful music and witty lyrics come together to tell a bittersweet tale – although the word “bittersweet” does not adequately convey the musical’s refined beauty, inextricable from its darker underbelly. The musical is set in Sweden at the edge of the 19th and 20th centuries, a moment in art and history which stands on the precipice of far reachingcultural transformation. The play, which debuted on Broadway in 1973, self-consciously reflects on the breakdown of social institutions, including religion, the military, the aristocracy, even romance itself. The comically savage second act showstopper, “Every Day a Little Death,” places the institution of marriage in its crosshairs, declaring, “love’s disgusting, love’s insane – a humiliating business.” Indeed, the plot is structured as a classical comedy of manners, as the central characters conspire to resolve a twisted web of marriages and love affairs.
At the center of this constellation of love triangles is the famous actress Desirée Armfeldt, played by Emily Carter. Desirée’s touring theatrical engagement in the town of former lover Frederik Egerman (J. Edward Clarke) rekindles their affair, but triggers a series of events impacting not only Frederik’s new (and unconsummated) marriage to 18-year Anne (Emily Turtle), but also other central characters who find themselves swept up in this storm of love, self-realization, and infidelity. Wheeler and Sondheim infuse plenty of wit, self-consciousness, and irony into this classical plot structure, not least of which is the explicit reflection, through the character of Desirée, on theater as a metaphor for the performance of life. This is, of course, so sharply rendered in the musical’s iconic song, “Send in the Clowns.”
Director McGlasson’s most skillful achievement here is the seamless and consistent interaction of music, character, and narrative. The complex music, playfully written in ¾ time, often entails trios, quartets, quintets, or choruses singing distinct rhythms and melodies which nevertheless remain musically interdependent. This is often layered with witty lyrics full of internal rhymes and wordplay, as in ensemble pieces like “Remember?” or “A Weekend in the Country” The company’s fluent and effective rendering of this music surely owes a lot to McGlasson and the musical direction of Lila Kane, who also conducts the lovely four-piece orchestra.
URI’s ensemble, comprising 18 performers, is up to the challenge of this almost operatic musical, which is about 2½ hours in length (including a generous intermission). In the roles of the wistful, world-weary lovers, Carter and Clarke anchor the production with strong chemistry and a maturity beyond their years. Carter’s second act performance of “Send in the Clowns” itself is a master stroke (worth the price of admission if you have not heard the song performed in its original context). Building the portrayal of Desirée with such confidence and independence in the early scenes, her quiet expression of vulnerability and regret near the show’s climax is disarming and completely breathtaking.
Emily Turtle, last seen in the title role of “Mary Poppins,” is captivating in the role of the child bride, Anne. Turtle’s exquisite soprano voice and adept musical sensibility add much to Sondheim’s score. Brooks A. Shatraw brings a lot of physical energy and youthful emotion to the melodramatic role of Henrik, Fredrik’s confused son, particularly during “Later” where he plaintively sings, “though I’ve been born, I’ve never been!” Maria Day offers wisdom and wit to the role of the matriarch, Madame Armfeldt, marked by a lovely rendition of the song “Liasons,” where she complains of “indiscriminate women” and the changing cultural norms around love and marriage. Daniel F. Greene and Emily MacLean provide great moments of comic relief as the Count and Countess Malcolm. MacLean is winning in a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of the Countess, showcasing perfectly timed acerbic wit and morbid one-liners. A special mention must also be given to Lauren Jannetti in the role of the maid Petra, who delivers a stunning, showstopping performance of the penultimate number, “The Miller’s Son.” Jannetti’s impressive talents will hopefully grace the URI stage again soon.
Supporting the ensemble are excellent design elements, including elaborate period costumes by Alison Walker Carrier. Renée Surprenant Fizgerald’s beautiful set design expresses Art Nouveau style, as well as an impressive rotating component to the thrust design. The production is housed in URI Theatre’s smaller J Studio, which offers the audience a closer connection to the performance. McGlasson’s direction is finely calibrated to the more intimate theatrical space. The overall effect is a delicate and subtle rendering of this complex and rewarding masterpiece of musical theater. If you have not had the recent chance to catch a musical production at URI, be sure to treat yourself “A Little Night Music” before it closes this weekend.