Night music

The Pops aces Sondheim
By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  July 1, 2008
SERENADE US: Isn’t a Broadway musical the sort of thing the Pops is supposed to do?

Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music — his musical version of Ingmar Bergman’s bittersweet comedy of mismatched partners, Smiles of the Summer Night — is the second full-length Broadway show that Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops have undertaken. (Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel was one of last season’s highlights.) This is now the best thing the Pops does. Classic musicals make substantial enterprises — as opposed to soft-serve versions of pop music never intended for a symphony orchestra, skimpy tributes, and spots for guest celebrities, with barely a nod to the gems of lighter classical and “semi-classical” music that were Arthur Fiedler’s specialty. Concert “encores” of Broadway shows have become a staple of New York theater. Why not Boston? Especially since both the conductor and the orchestra are so good at it. Lockhart really gets what makes a Broadway score work, how it alternates the lively and the lyrical. Sondheim’s delicious waltz rhythms overflow with insinuating and infectious solos for winds, and there’s a great solo cello part, so the orchestra actually seemed to enjoy playing this vivid music in its colorful arrangements.

The stars were supposed to be Tony-winning Christine Ebersole and her partner in the Broadway adaptation of Grey Gardens, Mary-Louise Wilson. But the day before the first of the three Pops performances, Wilson — who was to play the elderly Madame Armfeldt (the role created by Hermione Gingold) — bowed out “due to a scheduling conflict.” She was replaced by Boston stalwart Bobbie Steinbach, who brought down the house with her droll, world-weary reminiscence of her illicit but elegant past, delivering “Liaisons” (“I acquired some position, plus a tiny Titian”) in a deep Gingold-like baritone.

Ebersole was dithery and actressy as her daughter Désirée, the fading yet glamorous star of a Swedish touring stock company who still has feelings for an old lover, the lawyer and widower Frederick Egerman (Ron Raines, the only cast member with enough diction to override Symphony Hall’s mushy sound system). Eleven months before the story begins, he remarried, and he’s still infatuated with his young wife, Anne, even though, as he admits in the satirical “You Must Meet My Wife,” she is “unfortunately still a virgin.” Désirée’s current lover is a jealous and narcissistic dragoon, Count Carl-Magnus, whose wife, Charlotte, is so besotted that she’s willing to help him with his extra-marital affairs (“Every day a little death”). In the end, Anne runs off with Egerman’s repressed divinity-student son, Désirée dumps the count, and she and Egerman are left with each other, a little more self-knowing and, perhaps, a little more in love than before. Ebersole’s touching version of “Send In the Clowns” (which, in a documentary, Sondheim once introduced as “a medley of my greatest hit”), at Lockhart’s unhurried yet urgent tempo, was the emotional climax it needed to be.

The other roles, including Sondheim’s ingenious five-voice Viennese-style Swedish “Greek” chorus commenting on the action (“the Liebeslieders”), were taken by the superb Vocal Fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center. Outstanding were baritone Matthew Worth as Carl-Magnus (he sang Guglielmo under James Levine in Cosí fan tutte at Tanglewood last summer), mezzo-soprano Katharine Growdon as Charlotte, and mezzo-soprano Rebecca Jo Loeb as the maid Petra, a sexually omnivorous free spirit whose “The Miller’s Son” — in which she sings of her pre-marital exploits (half truth, half wish fulfillment) and resigns herself to life — stopped the second act cold.

Casey Hushion created the stylish and witty stage movement and Lawrence Goldberg pared down Hugh Wheeler’s original libretto without letting it lose its edge. If you missed the Pops’ performance in Boston, you can still catch it at Tanglewood, July 8.

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