There is a theater tale about a young player who asked his director if he could become a better actor by "doing Chekhov." According to the story, the mentor replied simply, "Get good first ... then do Chekhov!'"
The same could be said about "doing" Stephen Sondheim, the master of the late 20th-century American musical. One must get very good first, before tackling the challenging wordplay, the strenuous music and the subtle moods of this most erudite and urbane of composer/lyricists.
In choosing to mount A Little Night Music (Sondheim's take on Ingmar Bergman's classic film Smiles of a Summer Night) as the first musical offering in its 16 seasons, the Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival has gambled that it is good enough to succeed with its version of this 1973 Tony Award-winning show. That it has done so, admirably, is a validation of director Patrick Flick's superb staging, John Bell's glorious musical direction, Jack A. Smith's splendid costuming, and most significantly, a cast of strong-voiced and intelligent actors, who have shown that they are more than just good they are superlative interpreters of Hugh Wheeler's cynically comic book and Sondheim's brilliantly lyrical score.
The play takes place in Sweden in 1899 and tells the story of middle-age Fredrik Egerman (Warren Kelley) and his teenage bride, Anne (Tracy Ganem), whose 11-month-old marriage has yet to be consummated. The couple lives with Fredrik's son, Henrik (Christopher Kale Jones), an unhappy and frustrated lad who just happens to be in love with his father's new wife.
Fredrik's own melancholy leads him to the door of an old flame, the actress Desirée Armfeldt (Kate Ingram), whose love for the hapless lawyer has never completely died. Unfortunately for the reunited couple, Desirée has a dangerous paramour, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Al Bundonis), who catches the two of them in an uncompromising situation.
Attempting to get the better of Desirée's erstwhile and now again suitor, Magnus instructs his all-too-understanding wife, Charlotte (Meghan Moroney), to inform Anne of Fredrik's infidelity. The unhappy wives then conspire to get back at Desirée, the woman who has stolen both of their husbands.
Meanwhile, Desirée has invited the Egerman family to spend a few days at the county estate of her mother, Madame Armfeldt (Diane J. Findlay). When Magnus hears of the invitation, he crashes the party with his wife and the stage is set for a sexually charged weekend of accusations, assignations and shifting partnerships. All ends happily, though, as the midnight sun hangs just above the Scandinavian horizon.
Woven throughout the proceedings is Sondheim's hauntingly beautiful music, done in variations of three-quarter waltz time. Every one of the performers sings sublimely well, and it would be improvident to choose a favorite tune or moment from the show. My advice is to enjoy the entire ensemble, with special attention paid to Jones' fine tenor, and Moroney's touching rendition of "Every Day a Little Death."
The Shakespeare Festival company has proven that it can take on the challenge of performing musical theater at a high level. Let there be more of the same over the next 16 years!