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by Stephen Sondheim
Playhouse Theatre Company
Vancouver Playhouse
November 26-December 23

From the wheelchair where she relives the high points of her life, imperious Madame Armfeldt (Shirley Broderick) offers this advice to her granddaughter Frederika (Morgan McTaggart): “Never marry, nor even dally with, a Scandinavian.”

The reason, one might assume, based on the Swedes in A Little Night Music, is that they are among the least exciting people you’ll ever meet in a musical. Glynis Leyshon’s gorgeous Playhouse production can’t paper over the lack of pizzazz at the heart of Hugh Wheeler’s book and Stephen Sondheim’s score. This is a show I couldn’t help admiring but, despite some sterling performances, was never able to love.

With a title from Mozart, a classical ensemble of violin, cello, harp and woodwinds, characters from an Ingmar Bergman film and a plot from French farce, the play combines highbrow and lowbrow in potentially interesting ways.

In 1910 Sweden, middle-aged lawyer Frederik (Andrew Wheeler) has married a child-bride, Anne (Kelly Metzger), who is adored by Frederik’s son Henrik (Scott Perrie).  Frederik still cares for his former lover, actress Desiree (Nora McLellan), whose current affair is with Count Carl-Magnus (David Marr), to the great humiliation of his wife, the Countess (Karin Konoval).  Throw in the lusty maid Petra (Jennifer Lines), put everyone together at Madame Armfeldt’s country estate, and watch the fur fly.

But nothing ever really flies in this polite, constrained, sophisticated world of tuxedoed men and corseted women.  It’s a sex farce without the farce and a musical with no dancing.  

Sondheim’s strength is in his words.  From Frederik’s opening song, where he debates whether to ravish his sexy young wife or take a nap, to the ironic duet of Frederik and Desiree (“You Must Meet My Wife”), the lyrics sparkle.  But Frederik, played and sung earnestly by Wheeler, is terminally dull, and Sondheim has written his music to match.  These are not tunes you’re likely to go home humming.

Perrie’s agonized adolescent Henrik is cute, and Marr livens up the dull-witted, jealous Count. His motto: “A civilized man may tolerate his wife’s infidelities but not his mistress’s.”  The show, though, really belongs to the strong women—Metzger’s adorable Anne, with her bouncing blond curls and Betty Boop voice; Konoval’s outraged, dignified Countess, who sings the chilling lyric, “Every day a little death”; and especially McLellan’s tough woman-of-the-world Desiree. Her brilliant rendition of the show’s one memorable song, the bittersweet “Send in the Clowns,” is not so much sung as sobbed.

This is certainly one of the most expensive-looking productions the Playhouse has mounted in many a year.  Leslie Frankish dresses the large cast plus chorus of six in huge numbers of exquisite period clothes, including remarkable hats for the women. And her massive sets, including two giant turn-of-the-century cars, look like money.

But I still wanted to be lifted out of my seat, and I never was.

Jerry Wasserman

last updated: Sunday, December 18, 2005 11:06 AM
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