By Henry Chandonnet
To appreciate Stephen Sondheim’s achievement is not to love all his plays. Little night music it may just be one of his musicals that should be politely pushed aside.
Little night music by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler. Directed by Julianne Boyd. Produced by Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, Massachusetts, through August 28.
Following the death of composer legend Stephen Sondheim, repertory theater companies across America have rushed to produce a variety of the famous composer’s musicals. Some of these ventures were successful, such as the current Broadway run In the forest, which is bringing a special flair to Sondheim’s didactic take on fairy tales. However, not all of his plays are created equal and cannot always be recreated, even by very talented people. To deal with Sondheim’s legacy is to discriminate, to reckon with both the bad and the good. These failures do not diminish Sondheim’s charter, they merely compound it. For me, Little night music is among the most overrated composer/lyricist musicals, and Barrington Stage Company’s excellent production confirms my verdict – it cannot compensate for the show’s essential mediocrity.
Little night music it is a romantic farce, but with nuances. He tries to be deep, even stubborn in his tricks. But beneath the humorous surface lies an unpleasant reality: the musical serially demeans all of its female characters. It’s Anne, the quirky child bride who likes jewelry and comedies. She is eventually taken in by her husband’s son. Then there is Charlotte, the stone-faced woman who insistently waits on her husband regardless of his affairs and drunkenly covets another man as a means of making him jealous. And, of course, there’s Madame Armfeldt, the elderly matriarch who spends her time lying about past endeavors – because her life as an old woman is completely worthless. None of the male characters are treated so trivially, being dismissed as mere playthings. Yes, their trials and failures are the backbone of the humor, but they have freedom and are successful at the end of the evening. MOST Little night musicHer self-deprecating comedy is created by women’s sexual and romantic failures.
Worst of all is Desiree’s case. Of all the female characters in the show, she has willpower. She’s a working actress, comfortable making choices, and smitten by two different men. At the end of the first act, however, we her true motives, more emotionally nuanced. Desiree wants to settle down with a man – for the sake of herself and her daughter. She believes that Fredrik is that man. When Fredrik tells her he can’t leave his wife, Anna, Desiree is surrounded by one of the worst breakdowns in Sondheim’s catalog. “Send in the Clowns” is a giant song (a standard), and Emily Skinner, Barrington Stage’s Desiree, handles the crushing ballad with powerful grace. Then, miraculously, Fredrik’s wife leaves him and he chooses to settle down with Desiree! How sweet, how ordinary. Just minutes after the destruction of Send in the Clowns, a viewer is left wondering: why did Sondheim put us through this? Desiree is emotionally traumatized to our amusement, but it all works out. She is belittled by the whims of the men around her. To me, this was a disturbing, manipulative cart that felt wrong, at least from the perspective of 2022.
From a production standpoint, BSC does everything right. The set feels classic yet fresh, and the directorial vision is also compelling. The theater’s top names—Emily Skinner, Sierra Boggess, and Mary Beth Peil, among them—pull their stellar weight. Most impressive is the new talent on stage. Sabina Collazo’s Anne is hitting the comic marks here and Noah Wolfe’s Henrik is full of inviting youthful happiness. Above all, however, is Sophie Mings as Petra, one of Egerman’s servants. She is a somewhat peculiar character, present mostly for her sexual orientation and lower-class bravado. Still, Mings’ Petra injected some liberating energy into a show that’s all too comfortable denigrating its female characters. At the end of the evening, Petra sings “The Miller’s Son”, a song that – in the wrong hands – could seem trivial. Mings makes the tune one of the show’s few empowering experiences. That said, Ming’s performance, along with the excellent turns of the other talented actors, can’t help but make this show stand up to the times. At this point it’s dated, nostalgia for those uncomfortable with change.
This is not a reason to avoid Sondheim, to ‘cancel’ him posthumously. No, this is an opportunity for artists to look carefully at his work and create the necessary imaginative revisions. The time for uncritical revival is over. Barrington Stage Company presented a fantastic production of a musical that, these days, is not so great.
Henry Chandonnet is a current student at Tufts University double majoring in English and Economics with a minor in Political Science. He serves as Arts Editor for The Tufts Daily, the flagship campus publication. Henry’s work can also be seen on Film Cred, Dread Central and Flip Screen. You can contact him at henr[email protected] or follow him on Twitter @HenryChandonnet.