Desiree Armfeldt will be more musical than usual when the curtain goes up on the Houston Grand Opera's revival of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music Jan. 29.
Mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade will be singing sections of the score originally sung by the roving "Liebeslieders," the formal-dress roaming Greek chorus, in the sophisticated musical based on the Ingmar Bergman film, "Smiles of a Summer Night."
Performances continue to Feb. 14, in a scattered eight-show schedule. The title page in the HGO program calls the Broadway musical “an operetta in two acts,” a term Sondheim advocates, according to production notes.
Because of the high-caliber voices in the production, including von Stade, baritone Thomas Allen as Fredrik Egerman and soprano Evelyn Lear as Madame Armfeldt, director Michael Leeds wanted to "allow the characters to tell more of their own story in music," said Houston Grand Opera publicist Jo LaBrecque-French.
"When you cast singers of this quality you want to showcase them more," she told Playbill On-Line. Thus, the leads have absorbed some choral sections to illuminate the characters' state of mind. The 1973 musical, produced and directed by Harold Prince, with a book by Hugh Wheeler, tells of three couples and their romantic entanglements, mismatched hopes and frustrating timing. "Send in the Clowns" was the breakaway hit of the score and became Sondheim's best known song. The central characters are aging actress Desiree, reunited with ex-lover Fredrik, a lawyer.
Von Stade now sings more of "The Glamorous Life," Desiree's introductory number in the show. HGO does not use the version of the song heard in the film of A Little Night Music.
Against the show's tradition, Desiree and Fredrik now also sing sections of the Liebeslieders' "Night Waltz," "The Sun Won't Set" and "Perpetual Anticipation" in Act Two. The interaction between the chorus and the two principals is more "fluid" now, LaBrecque-French said.
The changes by director-choreographer Leeds and musical director Grant Gershon were done in collaboration with Sondheim, who arrived in Houston Jan. 25 and will stay through the opening weekend. The musical changes will be heard around the country when National Public Radio (NPR) broadcasts the performance later this year.
Also in the cast are Sheri Greenawald (Charlotte), Nanne Puritz (Anne), John McVeigh (Henrik), Leslie Ann Hendricks (Petra) and Frank Hernandez (Carl-Magnus Malcolm).
Among director Leeds' credits are Broadway's Swinging on a Star, nominated for a Best Musical Tony Award. Off-Broadway, he staged Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah -- The Songs of Allan Sherman and Showing Off.
Designers are Ken Foy (sets), Ann Hould-Ward (costumes), Ken Billington (lighting) and Herb Lagoski (sound). Hould-Ward designed costumes for the Broadway productions of Sondheim's Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park With George.
Although Billington and Hould-Ward are frequent Broadway designers, LaBrecque said the HGO staging and its elements are not being considered for the talked-about Broadway revival of A Little Night Music mentioned for the 1999-2000 season. That legit commercial staging is a possible vehicle for Glenn Close and will be produced by Margo Lion, Fred Zollo, Nick Paleologis and Jujamcyn Theatres, with Declan Donnellan as director.
In addition to mounting classic European operas, HGO commissions world premieres by international and American writers (such as Carlisle Floyd's Cold Sassy Tree next season) and regularly revives (usually once a season) American musicals, including Show Boat (which toured starring Donald O'Connor and arrived on Broadway in 1982-83), Annie Get Your Gun, Hello, Dolly!, Sweeney Todd, Street Scene, Carousel and The Fantasticks.
HGO has staged Porgy and Bess three times, taking the show to Broadway in the 1976-77 season, where it won the Best Revival Tony.
The HGO Little Night Music company also includes Daniel Belcher, Kerri Marcinko, Jessica Jones, Richard Crawley and Leslie Johnson (as the Liebeslieders), James Alba (Frid, the butler), Deric Rosenblatt (Mallo), James Love (Bertrand), Pippa Winslow (Osa), dancer Mark Arvin (Young Fredrik) and dancer Martha Butler (Young Desiree). The use of Arvin and Butler, who haunt certain scenes as the lovers' younger selves, is new with this production.
A Little Night Music performances are at the Wortham Theater Center in Houston. For ($20-$175) ticket information, call (713) 227 ARTS or (800) 828-ARTS.
-- By Kenneth Jones