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A Little Night Music
Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, Book by Hugh Wheeler
Directed by Annamaria Pileggi
Choreographed by Christine Knoblauch-O’Neal
Union Avenue Opera
August 19, 2022

Debby Lennon, Peter Kendall Clark
Photo by Dan Donovan
Union Avenue Opera

A Little Night Music is a show I had heard the score to but hadn’t seen onstage, and by the end of October I hope to have seen it twice, as two local companies have chosen to produce it this year. The first production by Union Avenue Opera, which as an opera company focuses much on the singing and orchestra. And it does sound wonderful, with gorgeous vocals, and a full, lush-sounding orchestra, although in addition, it is also superbly acted and directed, with a stellar cast including several St. Louis-based performers.

A lot of companies are doing Stephen Sondheim shows this year, in memory of the legendary composer/lyricist who died late last year at the age of 91. Sondheim is regarded by many, including me, as one of the true geniuses of musical theatre. A Little Night Music is one of his more operatic-sounding works, which makes it ideal for a company like Union Avenue Opera. Based on the 1955 Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night, the show has a very “Old World European” feel, taking place in Sweden at the turn of the 20th Century. It explores issues of romance, repression, and regret, as well as challenging the attitudes and conventions of upper class society. The main characters are middle-aged lawyer Fredrik Egerman (Peter Kendall Clark), and well-known stage actress Desiree Armfeldt (Debby Lennon), who had been romantically involved years before but had lost touch until Fredrik brings his new, much younger wife Anne (Brooklyn Snow) to a play in which Desiree is appearing.  Anne is suspicious of Desiree because Fredrik, who obviously still carries a torch for his old flame, is evasive about their relationship. Also figuring into the story are Desiree’s aging mother Madame Armfeldt (Teresa Doggett), who is still nostalgic about the romantic adventures in her own past, and Desiree’s teenage daughter Fredrika (Arielle Pedersen), who lives with her grandmother while Desiree tours. There’s also Fredrik’s son from his first marriage, Henrik (James Stevens), who is studying to join the clergy but struggles to live up to his own ideals, and who harbors thinly-veiled feelings for Anne. Also figuring into the story are Desiree’s latest paramour, the self-absorbed and not-too-bright Count Carl-Magnus Malcom (Eric J. McConnell), and his neglected and jealous wife, Charlotte (Leann Schuering); and Anne’s maid, the bold and amorously adventurous Petra (Amy Maude Helfer). A somewhat hastily arranged weekend at Madame Armfeldt’s villa brings all these characters and their conflicting desires, jealousies, and conflicts together, resulting in a great deal of relational chaos, a measure of witty banter, and much reflection and commentary by way of song.

It’s a fascinating story, especially since a lot of the characters aren’t exactly likable, although all are made interesting and there isn’t a dull moment here, even though there isn’t much in the way of “action”, traditionally speaking. It’s a lot of talking, singing, and reflecting. There’s also a clever framework involving a Quintet (Joel Rogler, Gina Malone, Grace Yukiko Fisher, Philip Touchette, and Sarah Price) who serve as something of a Greek Chorus, commenting on the proceedings and characters as the story plays out. Many of the relationships are shallow and even silly, but I think that’s the point of this story, and there are a lot of selfish motives and petty squabbling, but it’s all done with so much wit, emotion, and energy, as well as well-paced comic timing, that it’s fascinating and often hilarious to watch, and the ultimate reflections as the story starts to wind down and gets to the show’s most well-know song “Send In the Clowns”, are truly poignant and soul-bearing. That song, incidentally, makes a whole lot more sense in the context of the show than it does sung by itself.  

The characters are made all the more watchable by the terrific cast that has been assembled here. Debby Lennon, who is known locally in both musical theatre and opera, is excellent as Desiree, projecting that “stage star” presence with ease, as well as communicating the character’s vulnerability and sense of regret. She has has a wonderful voice, as usual, and her scenes with the equally excellent, rich-voiced Clark are a highlight of the show. There are also strong performances from Stevens as the idealistic, oh-so-earnest Henrik, with a strong tenor voice; excellent soprano Snow as the conflicted Anne; along with particularly strong comic turns by McConnell as the boastful, possessive Carl-Magnus, and Schuering as the jealous, exasperated Charlotte. The Quintet is also especially strong, and the biggest standout is Doggett in a delightful, hilarious performance as the aging, nostalgic Madame Armfeldt. There are strong performances all around, and the singing is especially stellar, as should probably be expected for an opera company. The wonderful singing is accompanied by an equally wonderful, rich-sounding orchestra conducted by Scott Schoonover, bringing the overall mood and atmosphere of the piece to life in a memorable way.

Technically, the set designed by C. Otis Sweezey isn’t as elaborate as you might expect from a traditional theatre company, but it’s effective all the same, with mood-setting backdrops and furniture being brought on and off by a highly efficient stage crew. The costumes by Doggett are sumptuously appointed and true to the period, suiting the characters especially well. There’s also excellent lighting by Patrick Huber that helps to set and maintain the tone and mood of the story. Another aspect of the production that’s more specific to opera companies is that “supertitles” (designed by Philip Touchette) are projected on screens at either side of the stage, displaying the script and lyrics as the show goes on, which is especially helpful in this show since there are several moments in which several characters are singing different lyrics at the same time. 

If you’ve never been to Union Avenue Opera, this is a good show to introduce you to this excellent company. Opera can seem intimidating to the uninitiated, but musical theatre is generally seen as a little more accessible. This production of A Little Night Music has a lot of the best qualities of both art forms, with top-quality singing, acting, and orchestra, as well as being a compelling story with much to think about in terms of relationships and the varying, flawed people who engage in them.  It’s a remarkable production.

James Stevens, Leann Schuering, Eric J. McConnell, Jordan Wolk, Teresa Doggett
Photo by Dan Donovan
Union Avenue Opera

Union Avenue Opera is presenting A Little Night Music at Union Avenue Christian Church until August 27, 2022

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