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Night Moves

Theatre Memphis begins its season with a bang and a whimper.

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It was graduation day in 1983, and for the first time in history, the senior class of Huston County High had chosen the music to be played during their triumphant entry into the blazing-hot gymnasium. At the appointed time, the music teacher tapped his baton, and the band played a familiar song from Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music: "Send in the Clowns." I bring this up to illustrate a point: Irony is always best when it's unforced.

No matter the cosmetic changes you effect, youth can never be recaptured, and real beauty only increases as we wrinkle and slouch toward oblivion. This is one of the principle themes of A Little Night Music, playing at Theatre Memphis. Perhaps someone should have explained this to TM's board, who, in a rush to give the aging playhouse a facelift, have demolished a sizable chunk of its sophisticated charm. A section of the lobby's paneling has been replaced with a faux finish that's about as tasteful as a checkerboard pattern can be. Now TM's once unique entry looks just like every other bistro that opened in every other strip mall in every other suburb in every other month of 1994. Of course, the actors' microphones failed time and time again throughout the show, and there was feedback from the speakers whenever the cast sang in unison. But let the performance be damned: It's all about the lobby.

Designers Andre Bruce Ward (costumes), Michael Williams (scenic), and Carla Wollard (lights) have made TM's A Little Night Music into magnificent feast for the eyeballs. The set design is loosely modeled on a tarnished copper sundial. The blue-green patinas, a "defect" of age, only serve to make the metal artifact that much more interesting. These colors are echoed throughout. Wollard's lights make Ward's costumes glow as if they were lit from within, and the saturated colors she uses to define the play's various moods would please the pants off of Ingmar Bergman who wrote and directed the film Smiles of a Summer Night, on which A Little Night Music is based.

At root, A Little Night Music is a farce in the French tradition but with a brooding, decidedly Scandinavian edge. Only one character, Petra the maid, really knows how to live. Her song "The Miller's Son" somberly catalogues the wonders of marital bliss then wickedly asks why anyone would wait for Mr. Right when Mr. Right Now is waiting. Kell Christie, a character actress who gets better every time she walks on stage, makes this the most memorable number in a show full of memorable numbers.

She is nearly matched by Anita Jo Lenhart as the desperately conniving Countess Charlotte, George Dudley as the vain, misogynistic Count Malcolm, and Ann Sharp as the lascivious but aging actress Desiree. Veteran actress Anastasia Herin gives one of her finest performances as Desiree's mother, Madame Leonora, whose sex life is surely one for the record books. Rising star Jonathan Russom manages to find extraordinary depth as Henrik, a student torn between his love for the writings of Martin Luther and the curves of his young stepmother (a perky Lydia Tilson). Brad Kroeker is adequate as the sexually frustrated lawyer Fredrik, but given his supporting cast, adequate is more than enough.

According to his director's note, Mark Steven Robinson thinks A Little Night Music has a "truly happy ending," which may explain why, in spite of so many wonderful elements, A Little Night Music never truly soars. After Henrik's failed suicide attempt and Fredrik's badly played round of Russian roulette, all the right couples do end up together. But consider the show's closing moment: Fredrik sprawls in the arms of his once and future lover Desiree. A trickle of blood runs down his cheek. He's rattled but not so badly shaken that he can't summon up a self-deprecating line. "To put a gun to one's head," he says almost contemptuously, "and to miss " In a play chock full of impotence metaphors, this is the most tragic. It is perhaps the saddest happy ending in the history of American musical theater.

A Little Night Music is probably the most fully realized production to appear on TM's stage since As Bees in Honey Drown in 2000. But the theater is clearly more worried about fixing lobby walls that aren't broken than replacing microphones and speakers that are. And that's a real problem. n

Through September 19th

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