A Little Night Music, by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, is currently being resurrected at East West Players. E.W.P. has a long history with Sondheim, having done 12 productions of his work in their 46-year history. I have seen a couple of these and enjoyed them immensely, especially Passion, which is one of the more difficult to pull off.
The musical A Little Night Music, based on Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night, is said to explore the complexities of love and heartache as the summer night “smiles on the young, the fools, and the old.” Unfortunately the production at East West Players provides few smiles, some confusion, and shoddy stagecraft.
The first mistake Tim Dang, the director, made was to give the production his “own special stamp.” First, the setting looks vaguely tropical but characters are walking around in Asian garb. This Nordic show does not translate well to the tropics, Japan, China, or wherever this was set. Perhaps it is because this culture is so foreign to the Asian sensibility that Dang felt he had to change it. He didn’t do that with Passion or Last Five Years and you saw the play with Asian actors but in the original context.
Dang also was proud that the show was going to be acoustic, without amplification. Well. In general, the small band that played the music overshadowed the singers, who thus seemed small and couldn’t be understood. The four-person chorus, used throughout, seemed to have little relationship to the other characters or each other. Their first number, which introduces the evening, starts off a cappela but swiftly is joined by the orchestra or in this case the band. Here the singers intoned notes that didn’t always blend or make musical sense.
Another example was having Desiree sing “Send in the Clowns” to Mr. Engerman, whereas the number is supposed to be a reflection of her private thoughts. It didn’t help that this number, as well as punch lines, other songs, and other elements were often delivered face-front in a play that is supposed to make the audience feel they are eavesdropping on these silly aristocrats.