LOU’S VIEWS: Team playing from ensemble highlights IRT’s ‘Night Music’

My least favorite song in “A Little Night Music” is “Send in the Clowns.”

The show’s one tune known to the masses (and composer Stephen Sondheim’s only break-out hit), the song has become the musical equivalent of the “To be or not to be” speech for cabaret singers and Broadway stars.

Catherine Zeta-Jones’ performance of it at the 2010 Tony Awards sent me digging through the couch cushions for the remote. Barbra Streisand, with her “Don’t bother/they’re here” whisper, made me glad she’s never played the part. And Judy Collins’ has gotten more trill-heavy with age.

So it is with great pleasure I report that, on opening night of “A Little Night Music” at the Indiana Repertory Theatre, Sylvia McNair nailed the tune.

And the singer more accustomed to opera houses than regional theaters did it not by treating the song like a stand-alone aria but by firmly anchoring it in character, place and moment. She uses it to give us a heartbreaking look into the soul of the seemingly frivolous Desiree Armfeldt, the touring actress at the heart of the Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler musical.

The wry romance (even the wise matriarch character sings of her multiple liaisons and the goods acquired from them) concerns Desiree’s reuniting with Fredrik, a past partner who may have been the love of her life. Their re-sparking is complicated by Fredrik’s young wife and grim son, and by Desiree’s daughter, knowing mother and jealous lover … and her lover’s bitter wife.

But amid the confusion, the sexual tussling, and even some gunplay, this is the story of middle-age love, connections missed, and second chances artfully adapted from Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smiles of a Summer Night.”

For the most part, the first full-scale musical tackled by the IRT in about 20 years is solid. The seven-piece orchestra, parked under the stage, sounds great. The elaborate costumes and minimal sets are smartly designed.

And, while it may sound contradictory, there’s stand-out ensemble work by James Rank, who crafts a Fredrik who knows he’s not the most interesting person in the room; Grace Morgan, who gives us an Anne free from the cartooning that can tempt lesser actresses playing his nearly child bride; and Jacquelynne Fontaine who, as the long-suffering wife of Desiree’s lover, delivers a riveting duet with Morgan on “Every Day a Little Death.”
If only Julie Conuel, as the randy maid Petra, hadn’t been allowed to turn “The Miller’s Son” (my favorite song in the show) into an “American Idol” audition. And if, as Madame Armfeldt, Fontaine Syer had had more fragility in her DNA. She’s a fine actress in the wrong part.

McNair smoothly blends in with the ensemble, making this “Night Music” memorable not as a diva showcase but perhaps as the production that launched a series of smart, fun, actor-driven musicals at the IRT. I look forward to seeing if one makes it onto the 2013/2014 schedule.•


This column appears weekly. Send information on upcoming arts and entertainment events to lharry@ibj.com.

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