01 December 2010

Applause for the clowns

We who go forth of nights and see without the slightest discomposure our sister and our wife seized on by a strange man and subjected to violent embraces and canterings round a small-sized apartment – the only apparent excuse for such treatment being that it is done to the sound of music – can scarcely realize the horror which greeted the introduction of this wicked dance.

—In an article in the English magazine, Belgravia, at a time when Waltz was becoming popular

And the characters in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music are introduced to us dancing the Waltz, exchanging partners, with weariness and hesitation in some of the exchanges, yet with a smile in the others.

We are presented with men and women intertwined in one graceful, shameful and truthful dance, and the link is love, or whatever sensitivity it is that goes between any two people in a romantic relationship. One character is after another character who is after another. Each one is a point in a series of connected triangles. In play are love’s realities and therefore its complexities.

A Little Night Music poster
Take the very sharp Countess Charlotte who knows about her husband Count Carl-Magnus and his mistress but endures the setup anyway. She talks about him and admits both hatred and unfounded devotion:
He smiles sweetly,
strokes my hair,
says he misses me.
I would murder him right there,
but first I die.
He talks softly of his wars
and his horses
and his whores.
I think love’s a dirty business.
. . .
I’m before him on my knees
and he kisses me.
He assumes I’ll lose my reason
And I do.
Carl-Magnus’s mistress is the theatre actress, Desiree Armfeldt, who, after a life of flitting from one fling to another, decides to “find some sort of coherent existence” and settle down with an old lover, Fredrik Egerman–knowing too well that he is married to the 18-year-old Anne. Fredrik has “fallen over the spell of youth, beginnings, the blank page…”, has certainly fallen in love with Anne, but is also completely enamored with Desiree just the same. Fredrik visits Desiree after a long time of not seeing her. His motives for coming, he says, “are what might be called mixed . . . for old time’s sake, for curiosity, to boast about [his] wife, to complain about her…”

Carl-Magnus supects an affair between Desiree and Fredrik and is determined to find out the truth. The defiant count explains, “A civilised man can tolerate his wife’s infidelity, when it comes to his mistress, a man becomes a tiger”.

Then there is the introverted Henrik, Fredrik’s son, who has been harbouring feelings for Anne. In his words, he is “hopelessly in love with [his] stepmother” and realizes “how many mortal sins [it] involves”.

Desiree’s mother, Madame Armfeldt can only feel frustration about how her daughter has grown and how the times have changed:
To see them—indiscriminate
women, it
pains me more than I can say,
the lack of taste that they display!
. . .
Too many people muddle sex
with mere desire,
and when emotion intervenes
the nets descend.
It should on no account perplex,
or worse, inspire;
it’s but pleasurable means
to a measurable end.
Why does no one comprehend?
Let us hope this lunacy is just a trend.
With all the muddle the characters are in, they can perhaps follow the example of Fredrik and Anne’s carefree maidservant, Petra:
In the meanwhile,
there are mouths to be kissed
before mouths to be fed,
and there’s many a tryst
and there’s many a bed,
there’s a lot I’ll have missed
but I’ll not have been dead
when I die!
And a person should celebrate everything
passing by.
Celebrate everything passing by—something one cannot do without awareness and self-awareness. Considering all the follies and pain the characters have endured and inflicted upon themselves, their lot can not be called pitiful, because they are well aware of their situations and act on it, even after a long time of knowing without deciding to change.


After the campy Xanadu, Atlantis Productions offered the sophisticated, A Little Night Music. It was difficult not to appreciate Hugh Wheeler’s libretto and Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics, and so the quality of the audience’s experience depended much on production and performance.

A wall made up of material resembling stained glass was built as a backdrop. Lights were reflected on it to create mood and signal time. The costumes and props were believable enough to be from the 1900s. Everything on the technical side was solid except for the lapel mics which at times lost sound.

The orchestra was small, but it did well to convey the beauty of Sondheim’s music (a member of the audience couldn’t help shouting ‘Bravo!’ several times after the final song).

The cast gave a competent performance, particularly in singing. A few of them, though, missed their marks in acting. Chris Villonco, who played Anne, sang the difficult songs effortlessly, but would sometimes act like a 14-year-old instead of instead of an 18-year-old. Jay Glorioso, taking on the acerbic but adorable Madame Armfeldt, could have exuded more authority and packed more punch in her lines. And Felix Rivera as the confused and vulnerable Henrik came off a bit over-comical that it was difficult to feel sympathy for his character when it was requiring it.

When Dawn Zulueta came out on stage, no one would question that she was Desiree Armfeldt, the gorgeous, glamorous and worldly theatre actress. True to her character, she came out a star. Most knew her as a movie actress and there might be doubts with her singing ability; while her voice wasn’t fantastic, she interpreted the songs with clever inflection and phrasing.

In a scene where all the characters were gathered at a luncheon, the tangled lovers threw insults at each other. The young Henrik took a bold stand telling everyone to stop with their madness, to which Desiree responded, “Why don’t you just laugh at us all?”. This penchant for laughing at the world’s disgraces had been consistent with Desiree’s character. One of the musical’s highlights was when Desiree sang “Send in the Clowns”. A woman who had been into one affair after another finally confessed to a man that she wanted to settle down with him. And the man said no, said he preferred to be with his 18-year-old wife. The woman in her shock and sadness could not speak but responded anyway:
Don’t you love farce?
My fault, I fear.
I thought that you’d want what I want—
Sorry, my dear.
But where are the clowns?
Quick, send in the clowns.
Don’t bother, they’re here.
This was where Dawn Zulueta truly delivered. The song was sung with genuine regret and heartbreak, yet with full restraint so as to not display hysteria and anger.

The story then, that had so beautifully risen to a climax, had to conclude. God did not exactly arrive from a machine, but in a quick succession of events, the characters found their proper partners. Countess Charlotte was pleased that Carl-Magnus, in his rage upon seeing her and Fredrik flirt, became a wild lion just for her and then took him in her arms. Anne fled with Henrik immediately after he told her about his feelings for her. And just as Desiree asked Henrik, “Why don’t you just laugh at us?”, the show seemed to ask the audience, “Why don’t you just accept the foolishness?” Applause for the clowns, they’re finally here.


We go forth and experience a myriad of strange, self-destructive behaviors because of love, lust, loneliness and other reasons we can’t readily pinpoint. The most puzzled of us could turn to art for understanding, consolation or escape. And we have here one musical that illustrates the complexities of romantic relationships. It must be said that this show, above all, is a triumph in music and lyrics. The songs are enough to stimulate theatre-goers. The musical successfully illuminates the small moments lovers find themselves in—the mixed motives, incomprehensible feelings, laughable gestures and ironic statements; but as a story, it wraps up abruptly.

Reality is stranger than fiction, we say. It will always be a challenge to have a viewer convinced that he is in fact looking at himself and the world when he is looking at a man doing the unbelievable on stage; to sell the illogical, because this ill logic is what our lives are made of.

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