We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

A Little Night Music at Manhattan School of Music (photo by Brian Hatton)

There was much to enjoy last night in Manhattan School of Music's American Musical Theater Ensemble's production of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music. Although it premiered in 1973 it has aged well with a plethora of melodic arias underscored by beautiful music, orchestrated by Jonathon Tunick. Music director Shane Schag was at the piano and there were some lovely contributions by Caroline Cox on violin, Duane Fields on cello, Connor Schultze on bass and particularly by Melanie Genin on harp and Brian Krock whose lovely clarinet intro to "Send in the Clowns" was a highlight of the evening.

The story (book by Hugh Wheeler) was suggested by the Ingmar Bergman film and takes place in the early 20th c. in Sweden at the time of year when the sun doesn't set. Six mismatched people get their love lives sorted out under the observing eye of grande dame Madame Armfeldt who has a lifetime of experience, and her precocious granddaughter Fredrika. 

The former was portrayed by veteran star of opera and theater Catherine Malfitano who was made up to look elderly. Her voice is undeniably better than Hermione Gingold and she put her own take on the role. Her song "Liaisons" was a show-stopper.

She had a lovely bond with granddaughter Fredrika, portrayed by petite Julia Suriano who was able to express all the ambivalence of the child of a too-busy mother of whom she is quite proud but by whom she feels somewhat neglected.

The middle generation of the Armfeldt family is the actress Desirée who would like to renew her old relationship with Fredrik Egerman, a lawyer now married to his childlike virgin bride Anne. Desirée was portrayed by mezzo-soprano Agness Nyama, whose song "Send in the Clowns" was far better sung than it was by Glynis Johns. She has a fine mezzo instrument and sang with great feeling.  Unfortunately, her acting was not up to par with her singing.  There was no chemistry with anyone else in the cast and it was difficult to believe that she belonged in that family or circle of frenemies.

As Fredrik, baritone Clayton Brown was quite believable and sang well. His Act II duet with Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm was splendid. Nickolas Miller was quite good as the arrogant Count, especially as he terrorized his poor wife Charlotte, excellently sung and believably acted by Addie Hamilton. Ms. Hamilton's conspiring with young Anne was quite fine and Samantha Williams made a fine shallow Anne with her bright clear soprano and ditzy body language.

Fredrik's son Henrik was performed by Luke Sikora who did an excellent job portraying a young man in love with his step-mother and burying his feelings in theology. As immoral as the story is, we couldn't help cheering when the two of them ran away together leaving Fredrik free to get back together with Desirée.

We loved the other show-stopping song performed by Viktoria Falcone as the servant Petra--"The Miller's Son".  Her pizazz is something to see and to watch develop.

Further, we loved the chorus.  All were fine: Evan Henke, Stephanie Christian, Sara Ptachik and Hannah Dishman with Christopher S. Lilley a standout for his impressive tenor. All were choreographed by Colleen Durham in a colorful waltz.

The gorgeous period-appropriate costuming was credited to Summer Lee Jack. The simple but effective set and its lighting were credited to Shawn Kaufman.

The Direction by Carolyn Marlow fell short of her customary good work. The main flaws in the production had to do with the overall tone of the piece. Accents were all over the map and some performers had lazy diction, causing us to miss the wonderful sung dialogue. Characters occasionally seemed to belong to  different productions, different countries and different epochs. We longed for more unity of tone.

We were also troubled by the obvious amplification which lent an unnatural sound.  In a rather small auditorium with trained voices, perhaps that could have been eliminated. 

Nonetheless, it was a gift to be able to see and hear this show again, in spite of some minor shortcomings. This is the first time we have seen and heard shortcomings of any kind at an MSM production. We realize it is a student production but we generally don't have to make such allowances.

(c) meche kroop

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