David Anthony Fox David Anthony Fox has been a theater critic for City Paper since 1999. By day, he runs academic programs and teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, and in his copious free time, he writes and lectures on various topics in the arts. He also blogs on theater and culture at recliningstandards.org.
When A Little Night Music premiered on Broadway in 1973, it took Sondheim fans by surprise. The composer-lyricist was famous as an acerbic observer of contemporary life; this show’s period setting — turn-of-the-century Sweden — seemed out of his comfort zone. So did the unabashedly sentimental plot: the story of an aging actress, Desiree Armfeldt, and her complicated love life. Yet Night Music was one of Sondheim’s stronger commercial successes, and its lush, tuneful score includes his one bona fide hit single: Desiree’s hauntingly bittersweet “Send in the Clowns.”
At the Arden, Night Music is very handsome to look at, and director Terrence Nolen has staged the show elegantly. Grace Gonglewski as Desiree gives a nuanced performance. Though she’s not really the glamorous woman of mystery we’ve come to expect in the role, Gonglewski is luminous in her own way. She is surrounded by a mostly capable supporting cast, and there are expert comic turns by Ben Dibble (as Carl-Magnus, Desiree’s dumb but potent boyfriend) and Karen Peakes (as Charlotte, Carl’s long-suffering wife).
What is largely absent here is the sophisticated European-ness that Sondheim’s operetta calls for. Even the character of Madame Armfeldt, Desiree’s mother, who is meant to represent the old guard, is played (by Sally Mercer) with no-nonsense practicality. Night Music is all about sex in its many manifestations. Here, though, while the words evoke love and longing, the attitude is drily contemporary. “The sun won’t set,” the chorus laments, waiting for the Scandinavian summer day to end. But when nighttime finally arrives, I’m not sure this likeable but forthrightly unromantic group will know what to do with it.
Through June 30, $36-$48, Arden Theatre, 40 N. Second St., 215-922-1122, ardentheatre.org.
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