Within the first few minutes of “A Little Night Music” – the newest mainstage musical in Brodie’s Alice Austin Theatre – the chorus members ask the audience to “admit I’m endearing.”
“Endearing,” however, comes nowhere close to capturing the emotional fortitude and vocal dexterity that characterizes Geneseo’s adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s critically acclaimed Broadway show.
Part comedy and part romance, this altogether too-human drama is nothing short of phenomenal in both its production and performances, and though its staging may be plain, the complexity of skill and the story woven throughout surpass the simple lullabies that the title deceptively conjures.
“[‘A Little Night Music’] is not an easy story to tell musically or dramatically,” said Rochester-based director Lindsay Warren Baker, who was invited to the project by professor and musical director Gerard Floriano.
The intricacy of “A Little Night Music” is clear even in the opening number, which starts, as Baker said, “as a concert and a story emerges.”
Men dressed in matching tuxedos and women in uniform gray skirts and white blouses walk onto the stage as if about to give any other choral concert. All lined up in a row holding their choral books open in front of them, they begin to sing and, as the song turns into a dance, the principal characters gradually separate and transform from members of the flock into fully fleshed-out individuals.
Though the opening may be off-putting to those not expecting the abstract approach, it is the perfect introduction to this funny and often melancholy story of three different families feeling adrift in life and intersecting in “the quest for happiness and love,” as Baker said.
“It’s about love and passions,” she said. “We feel for them … We want them to be happy.”
Sondheim’s musicals, for all their musical complexities, are known for their strange humanity. This empathy is well suited to the minimalist staging, which creates zones and layers of action and inaction as intricate as Sondheim’s harmonies.
Most noteworthy, though, is the semi-concert setup, which places the orchestra onstage.
This unique choice on the part of the director creates a show where music is a direct extension of the characters’ hopes and emotions rather than a distraction or an interruption, enhancing the lives of these characters by connecting musicality with action and dialogue.
No staging, regardless of how interesting, could obscure talentless actors, but “A Little Night Music” has no such problem. Featuring many familiar faces from the recent production of “Spring Awakening,” “A Little Night Music” is ripe with cast chemistry. The numerous stunning, nuanced performances include junior Alexandra Mendes’ sassy yet vulnerable portrayal of actress Desiree Armfeldt. Her emotional rendition of the show’s signature song “Send in the Clowns” deserves a special bow.
Like its two-timing characters, though, “A Little Night Music” does have its flaws. In a musical crafted by Sondheim there are bound to be quick, spiraling passages of lyrical twists, and at times balance in sound in this particular production did not allow the words to shine.
There were numerous difficult songs performed beautifully, like junior Julia Masotti’s tongue-twisting turn during her saucy character Petra’s song “The Miller’s Son.”
Too often, however, the orchestra overpowered the actors’ singing and dialogue, and actors, when caught in a particularly fast passage, frequently mumbled their way through.
Of “A Little Night Music,” Baker said, “That’s the kind of theater I love to make.” Luckily for audiences, despite a few faults, this production is the kind of theater we love to see.
“A Little Night Music” is playing from Wednesday Feb. 29 to Saturday March 3 at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $8 for Geneseo students, $9 for Geneseo faculty and staff and $10 for the general public. Tickets are available at the door, online or by calling (585) 245-5877.