Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music has nothing to do with the ubiquitous work by Mozart with the same title, albeit in German (Eine Kleine Nachtmusik). Indeed, some might not consider it classical music at all since it got its start and fame on Broadway, even though the composer's works are nowadays performed in opera houses as well as on theatrical stages. University Theatre at NC State is currently mounting a production in Stewart Theater which opened on August 15 to a respectably sized audience in spite of the severe thunderstorm that hit the area an hour before curtain, and the Progress Energy transformer fire nearby that plunged a sizable portion of University Park and Cameron Village into darkness for the entire evening. If you don't know Sondheim, this is an opportunity you should take advantage of to make his acquaintance.
The production, directed by Fred Gorelick and using a combination of talented students and local actors, is also quite a respectable one, even if not of Broadway, or even quite of local opera company quality, which is the perspective and bias from which this reviewer approached it. In a reversal of the usual sequence of events, the 1973 work uses a 1955 Ingmar Bergman film, Smiles of a Summer Night, as its source. Hugh Wheeler's book is clever and witty, and Sondheim's music quite polished and engaging, even if appearing relatively simple. The action takes place in 1905 and is divided into two acts with scenes taking place in various interior and exterior locales in town in the first and in the country in the second. The stage space was very cleverly designed, decorated, and used to suggest them without many actual changes of sets, and those few were mostly executed without pause as actors carried the necessary items on and off or discretely moved things around while something else was going on. Props and backdrops were likewise clever and attractive, as were the costumes. All of this made the action and the evening flow along like a gentle stream, turbulence in the relationships amongst the characters (married and having problems and affairs or trying to achieve one or the other) being like so many rocks the water had to flow over and around.
In addition to the songs sung by the main characters, and as in an opera there are several of these since there is a main plot and a subplot involving the upper/middle class individuals and a side plot involving frisky servants, the cast also includes a vocal quintet that constitutes the chorus, functioning in many ways like a Greek chorus, with some of its music being much like a leitmotiv. The "orchestra," playing in the pit, consisted of a piano (played by Julie A. Florin who was also the musical director), a violin, a viola, a cello, a double bass, a clarinet and/or flute, being thus in reality a sextet, a chamber ensemble that seemed especially appropriate for what is in fact very much a chamber piece, akin to a salon opera like Pauline Viardot-Garcia's Cendrillon which has only piano accompaniment.
In the opinion of this reviewer, Sondheim should be classified in the realm of operetta. His works cannot qualify as true comic opera because there is spoken dialogue, but they have numbers that are like arias and others that resemble recitatives; there are solos, duets, trios, choruses, etc., just as there are in Gilbert & Sullivan, Offenbach, Flotow, and Johann Strauss. These composers all have their distinctive voices as do comic opera composers like Donizetti and Rossini. So does Sondheim, and his is just as good, simply a more recent one. It is wonderful Broadway theatre, but it is also a cut above the run of the mill musical because it has greater compositional craft and emotional/philosophical depth.
This production brings out both of these aspects admirably, although it does have some weak spots, in addition to some opening night problems such as uneven miking, a glitch in the lighting at the end of the first act, and opening night hesitation/jitters in some of the actors that will iron themselves out as the run progresses. The acting was generally very good, some was outstanding, as was the choreography, although some of both seemed a bit stiff or stilted, with the grandmother being the worst in acting and diction, and the son's cello playing being totally unconvincing! The general movement of the actors around and onto and off of the stage was remarkably natural and seamlessly smooth, a choreography in itself. However, although none were disastrous, some of the voices left a good bit to be desired. I could not help but compare the show in my mind with some of those produced in the past by the former National Opera Company, or by Long Leaf Opera. The pool of talent of the former is no longer available to draw upon locally, but most of the actors were simply not quite at that level, and my pleasure would have been even greater if they had been. We have the perennial problem rearing its head here: actors who can't sing and singers who can't act, as the traditional phrasing goes, although the latter are becoming rarer in today's opera world. The two worlds do, alas, seem still to be mutually exclusive locally; perhaps more collaboration and cooperation should be sought for future Sondheim productions. Meredith's production of his Sunday in the Park with George three years ago had better singing.
Although the characters, the story, and the plot become perfectly clear as the action and the evening unfold, it was a surprise not to find a synopsis of the action in the Playbill, which otherwise gave credit where credit was due in a bare-bones manner. I have deliberately chosen not to reproduce the cast list here, or to single out any of its thirteen members either for praise or criticism of vocal performance because none are known primarily as singers, and this is a music, not a theatre site.