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'Night' Moves

SSU's Lynne Morrow leads students through Sondheim puzzle

By David Templeton

Professor Lynne Morrow has been having an exciting few weeks. As she puts it when reached by cell phone on a Sunday afternoon in Rohnert Park, "As if just returning from the Grammys wasn't exciting enough, now my students and I are getting ready for the opening performance of a Sondheim musical! What could be better?"

It says a lot about Morrow--who was nominated in the Best Choral Performance Category for her work on last year's dramatic recording of Leonard Bernstein's Mass with conductor Kent Nagano--that she places the Grammy thrill just beneath the honor of leading a band of talented college kids through the musical process of singing Sondheim's challenging musical classic.

A Little Night Music, with songs and lyrics by Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, opens at SSU's Evert B. Person Theatre on Feb. 25. Stage director Adrian Elfenbaum and Morrow, who directs SSU's vocal and opera/musical theater program, have been in rehearsal since the beginning of last fall.

When asked what it is about A Little Night Music that inspired her to select it for SSU's big spring musical, Morrow laughs.

"Well, it's Sondheim," she says, "and Sondheim is a master. I think, from a pedagogical point of view, it's important for students to do master work. But I also was inspired to do it because the story revolves around love, a subject that is very accessible to the students at this time in their lives."

The music for Night Music--the story of mismatched couples coming together and moving apart while vacationing in the country--contains some of Sondheim's most luscious and romantic melodies, and also some of his trickiest.

"Sondheim set himself a puzzle with this show," Morrow explains, "deciding to set all of the music--all of it--in some sort of triple meter. There is a lot of waltzing, a lot of simple and complex threes, so it's very challenging and very interesting for the students to work on, and it's also just beautiful to listen to."

The music and songs, of which "Send in the Clowns" is probably the most famous, are also lyrically dense, in typical Sondheim fashion, demanding that performers let loose with such multisyllabic phrases as "It's a very short road from the pinch and the punch to the paunch and the pouch and the pension." Being faced with such musical and vocal challenges could be a bit daunting for students, but Morrow says her singers are up to the challenge.

"It all depends in how you present it," she says. "I think the music wasn't presented to the cast as if it were some big daunting thing, except in the case of the students who play the sort of Greek chorus. I did take them aside and tell them that this wasn't typical choral music and that they would be singing what was probably the most difficult music in the show."

Being a student production, the primary goal is for SSU's singers and actors to face the challenge of each new show and to learn and grow from all of it. That said, once the rehearsing and blocking are completed, the next step is to perform before a live audience. To that end, Morrow believes it is important for the students to have audiences packed with more than friends and family. She works hard to encourage the greater community to show up and see for themselves what these young performers have accomplished.

"What a lot of people know and a lot of others are only gradually learning," she says, "is that the university has very good vocal training. Most of the students you'll see in this show are graduate students, and they are very, very good. Vocally, you'll find that the work in this show has real integrity and polish. I want to say, 'Don't underestimate these performers because they are only students.' Anyone who comes to this show is going to leave impressed."

'A Little Night Music' runs Saturday-Sunday, Feb. 25-March 4. Preview, Feb. 25 at 2pm; show at 8pm. Sunday at 5pm; Thursday at 7:30pm; Friday-Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 2pm. Evert B. Person Theatre, SSU, 1801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park. $8-$15; SSU students, free. 707.664.2363.

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From the February 1-7, 2006 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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