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Photograph by David Allen

A Little Night Shirt: Allen Fitzpatrick strips down for his role as Fredrik in 'A Little Night Music.'

Send in the Sondheim

TheatreWorks takes a second look at 'A Little Night Music'

By Rob Pratt

THEATREWORKS artistic director Robert Kelley never expected to earn a reputation as an expert producer of Stephen Sondheim musicals. During the company's 34-year history, Kelley has directed more works by the icon of American musical theater than by any other author except one: Shakespeare. At first blush, the pairing of Shakespeare and Sondheim as the company's favorite authors seems unlikely. But Sondheim's lyrics, full of worldly-wise wordplay, bring to mind Shakespeare's heady use of language and richly rendered characters. In shows like A Little Night Music, which TheatreWorks opens at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts on Oct. 11, Sondheim takes on human foibles and frailty with an eye for psychology that rivals Shakespeare's shrewd sense. "We've been doing his works since 1979," says Kelley of TheatreWorks' history with Sondheim. "He exploded on the Broadway scene in the 1970s. He won the Tony for two or three years in a row, and he's the greatest contemporary composer of American musicals. He's inventive and extremely clever, and I don't think anyone else comes close."

The production now in rehearsal is the second time TheatreWorks has visited A Little Night Music. The first time around, during the 1980s, Kelley says, he directed a conventional look at the musical, setting the show, as is commonly done, in turn-of-the-20th-century Sweden and using an art nouveau look. This time, Kelley chose to move the show forward a decade to the brink of World War I, a time of changing social roles. "It's a point at which there's all kinds of change in the world--the role of women and how they're going to live their lives," he explains. "Women's suffrage is just achieved. Though interrupted by World War I, the flapper was on her way, and by 1913 she was making decisions about love and relationships. It was also the early art deco period--quite an explosion of a new kind of art, a whole different kind of fashion."

Taken from Smiles of a Summer Night, the film that made Ingmar Bergman famous, A Little Night Music tells the story of middle-aged Fredrik Egerman and his teenage bride, Anne. On a night out, Fredrik meets Desiree Armfeldt, an actress with whom he once had an affair. The chance meeting launches an armada of jealousies among Anne, Desiree, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (who had taken Desiree as a mistress and who learns of Desiree's rekindled love for Fredrick) and the count's wife.

Sondheim's masterful score, done entirely in triple meters that give the songs--explicitly or implicitly--a waltz feeling, includes the hit "Send in the Clowns." The music is loaded with fast-moving wit and evocative imagery. In a very Shakespearean turn, the maid delivers one of the show's sharpest observations--and one of Sondheim's most famous lyrics--in "The Miller's Son." "It's a very short road from the pinch and the punch to the paunch and the pouch and the pension," she sings in a rapid-fire rhythm.

"He fits all of his songs so brilliantly to the music and doesn't come off as a songwriter," Kelley says. "Songs in a good musical need to be at a moment that needs an extraordinary quality, and Sondheim matches the words and the music perfectly."

A Little Night Music, a TheatreWorks production, previews Oct. 8-10 and opens Oct. 11 and runs through Nov. 2. Shows are Tuesdays at 7:30pm (except Oct. 28), Wednesday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm (except Oct. 11 and Nov. 1) and Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are $28-$50, available at www.ticketweb.com and www.tickets.com or by calling 650.903.6000.

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From the October 2-8, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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