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Gerald Carpenter: Ensemble Theatre Company Debuts with ‘A Little Night Music’

All of us will miss the Alhecama Theater — except, perhaps, the Ensemble Company, which was no doubt weary of attempting to shoehorn its huge, um, talents into such a cramped proscenium.

Stephanie Zimbalist and Patrick Cassidy are the lead lovers in Ensemble Theatre Company's 'A Little Night Music.' (David Bazemore photo)
Stephanie Zimbalist and Patrick Cassidy are the lead lovers in Ensemble Theatre Company's A Little Night Music. (David Bazemore photo)

But Ensemble is opening in its new home venue, the New Victoria Theatre, with a show that will make the most of the expanded resources of the new hall: Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's A Little Night Music, based on Ingmar Bergman's 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night, with a truly star-studded cast that includes Piper Laurie, Stephanie Zimbalist and Patrick Cassidy, as well as Carly Bracco, Max Miller, Jordan Miller, Heather Ayers, Misty Cotton, Michael Byrne, Deborah Bertling, and Emily Cummings or Erika Foreman.

Ensemble's executive artistic director, Jonathan Fox, helms the production and Santa Barbara resident David Potter directs the music.

My admiration for Piper Laurie dates back to her starring as Tony Curtis' love interest in the car-racing melodrama, Johnny Dark, and I have had many occasions since then to reaffirm my enthusiasm — Carrie and Twin Peaks, of course, but more particularly, for me, as James Spader's booze-and-tranquilizer-addled mother in the great, sadly neglected, Storyville. Like everyone else, I took to Stephanie Zimbalist immediately in her Remington Steele days, but I have seen enough of her subsequent performances to confirm that her brilliance in the TV series was no fluke.

The title of the musical is a literal translation of the popular name for Mozart's Serenade No. 13 for Strings in G-Major, K. 525 — the name comes from Mozart, but he didn't mean to give it that title, "Eine kleine Nachtmusik" was just the description he wrote in his log, when he had completed its composition. The connection of Mozart to the Sondheim-Wheeler play is somewhat tenuous, except that the play is based on a Bergman film, and Bergman was a well-known Mozartophile.

The structure of the play, as of the film, is that of a round dance (rondo, rondeau, reigen, ronde), in which the partners are handed on around the circle. What must surely be more than a coincidence is that in 1950, five years before the Bergman film, the incomparable Max Ophüls directed one of his masterpieces, La Ronde, based on Arthur Schnitzler's 1900 play of the same name. Schnitzler's play was not a comedy — except, perhaps, in the Dantean sense — and it was not performed until 1920, when it received violently bad press on account of its "sordid" subject matter.

Bergman's previous films had often dealt with the same themes, but in contemporary settings. It wasn't until he switched the setting to Schnitzler's 1900 that he had a genuine hit on his hands. "Even Bergman's epigrams are much improved when set in the quotation marks of a stylized period piece," wrote Pauline Kael, who considered the film "a nearly perfect work." Kael goes no to observe that "In this vanished setting, nothing lasts, there are no winners in the game of love; all victories are ultimately defeats — only the game goes on ... Although benefiting from several ingenious slapstick situations, (the film) is a comedy in the most important meaning of the word. It is an arabesque on an essentially tragic theme, that of man's insufficiency ..."

Most of the above applies directly to A Little Night Music, owing to the sympathetic genius of Sondheim and Wheeler. Despite the contemporary mania for "updating" classics, they did not set their comedy in David Hockney's affluent suburbia or in a Hollywood McMansion, but left it right where it belongs, in the European theatrical milieu at the turn of the last century. The timelessness of a story only becomes clear when viewed in its own, specific time-frame. Jonathan Fox obviously understands this, too.

After previews Thursday and Friday, A Little Night Music opens officially at 8 p.m. Saturday and continues its run until Dec. 22, with performances at 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays.

Admission is $35 to $75 (depending on performance date). Discounts are available to seniors and groups of 10 or more. Youth price (29 and under) is $20. Tickets are available at the New Victoria Theatre box office at 33 W. Victoria St., by phone at 805.965.5400 or click here to purchase tickets online.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are his own.

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