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A Gorgeous Land of Make Believe

Cullen Theater, Wortham Theater Center
03/07/2014 -  & March 9, 13, 15, 18, 19*, 20, 22, 23, 2014
Stephen Sondheim: A Little Night Music
Elizabeth Futral (Desiree Armfeldt), Chad Shelton (Fredrick Egerman), Andrea Carroll (Anne Egerman), Joyce Castle (Madame Armfeldt), Mark Diamond (Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm), Brenton Ryan (Henrik Egerman), Carolyn Sproule (Countess Charlotte Malcolm), Alicia Gianni (Petra)
Houston Grand Opera Orchestra, Eric Melear (conductor)
Matthew Ozawa (Director), Isaac Mizrahi (Set and Costume Designer), Brian Nason (Lighting Designer)

C. Shelton, E. Futral (© Lynn Lane)

An endless stream of superlatives could be lavished upon Houston Grand Operaís current production of Sondheimís hauntingly humorous A Little Night Music. A visual and aural treat, the forces have combined to waltz us through the substantial musical. The cast, a melange of fresh stars from the HGO Studio and seasoned voices equally adept at musical theater and opera, is thorough and perfectly matched voice to role.

Acclaimed fashion designer Isaac Mizrahiís magical visual concept that supplants the weekend in the ďcountryĒ with one in a chimerical fairy-land, is stunning. Finely detailed trees and sky subtly grow and rearrange themselves to envelop the cast. The costumes are, not surprisingly, finely tailored evening wear, those cast in supporting and silent roles adorned with gossamer fairy wings.

Having an opportunity to hear Elizabeth Futral, Joyce Castle and, in the concurrently running A Coffin in Egypt, Frederica von Stade in an intimate setting like the Cullen Theater is a rare treat. We are up close and personal with these commanding actor-singers, and, in the Sondheim, Futrel steals her every scene, only given a run for her money by Castle. This isnít to say the rest of the cast isnít spectacular, but these two ladies , whether singing, speaking or merely glancing, are masters of nuance and demand our attention.

The men provide excellent vocal counterpoint to the women. Brenton Ryanís naive Henrik betrays the characterís inner confidence with bright, resonant tenor lines that reach their full potential when he finally confesses his love to Anne, high up in the branches of Mizrahiís arbors. Mark Diamond gives Carl-Magnus the perfect dose of buffoonery, while Chad Sheltonís Fredrick eschews nostalgia for philandering days of yore, while intertwining solid, dark-hued vocals with his various love interests.

The intricacy of Sondheimís music, wonderfully covered by his innate lyricism and fresh take on familiar harmonies, benefits greatly from the care and musicianship of an opera company of HGOís caliber. Eric Melear, director of the acclaimed HGO Studio, navigates the scoreís sophisticated rhythmic and timbral palate with ease, while the orchestra plays with the care and precision they bring to all productions. This is a winning show, and bodes well for next seasonís Sweeney Todd.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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