Chicago Theater Review: A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (Writers Theater in Glencoe)

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by Dan Zeff on May 11, 2012

in Theater-Chicago


For its scintillating revival of A Little Night Music, Writers Theatre has condensed the Stephen Sondheim classic into a chamber musical. The action is played out on a small thrust stage enclosed by lacy floor-to-ceiling curtains. The only set is a raised two-step platform in the middle of the playing area. The intimacy of the staging brings the audience into close touch with the wit, sophistication, and gentle eroticism of this most worldly and elegant of American musicals.

Dan Zeff’s Chicago Review of A Little Night Music at Writers’ Theatre

A Little Night Music is Sondheim’s adaptation of the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night, a droll story of sexual musical chairs among the middle- and lower-classes in provincial Sweden at the turn of the last century. Three generations of characters assemble and reassemble romantic relationships until everyone is reasonably paired up at the end. But along the way there are shouting matches, tears, trysts, and even a game of Russian roulette.

Sondheim conveys this complex sexual merry-go-round with some of his most brilliant and exquisite lyrics. The only hit to come out of the score is “Send In the Clowns” (whose international popularity mystified the composer), but his graceful quasi-operetta is a continuous flow of comic, wise, dramatic, and romantic songs.

Dan Zeff’s Chicago Review of A Little Night Music at Writers’ Theatre

The core characters are a middle-aged Swedish lawyer named Fredrik Egerman and his ex-lover, actress Desiree Armfeldt. Egerman has a 20-year old son named Henrik by his first marriage and, as a widower, married 18-year old Anne, a lass he had known since childhood. The marriage is in its 11th month and still unconsummated because Ann is wary of being deflowered. Henrik is a divinity student tortured by raging hormones, exacerbated by both his passion for his teen-aged stepmother, and his desire to experiment with the household’s sexy maid Petra, who leads the below stairs characters, and happens to be the only person having a good time for the entire duration of the story.

Dan Zeff’s Chicago Review of A Little Night Music at Writers’ TheatreDesiree stops in the town to perform with her acting company and she and Fredrik meet, igniting the old flame of their love affair. Desiree is currently the mistress of Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, a pompous and preening dragoon. Charlotte, the count’s wife, is in constant agony over her husband’s infidelities and general boorishness. He’s a lout but she loves him.

Presiding over the romantic couplings around her is Desiree’s mother, the aged Madame Armfeldt, a famous and successful courtesan in her time. She now lives in opulent retirement with her memories of happier days and her granddaughter Fredrika, Desiree’s child (the peremptory dowager took custody of the girl to insulate her from Desiree’s bohemian lifestyle). Add Madame Armfeldt’s butler Frid, a man who matches Petra’s lusty nature, and you have a combustible mix of sexually charged personalities, all of whom gather at a weekend house party called by Madame Armfeldt at her daughter’s insistence. It’s at this weekend in the country that the characters rearrange themselves into proper romantic combinations. Some of the newly assembled relationships may not last long but they grant the characters at least momentary respite from their jealousies and sexual longings.

William Brown has demonstrated a deft hand at directing high comedy at Writers and elsewhere, and his staging gives A Little Night Music a proper veneer of wry wisdom, lust, and humanity. He does end the show on an unexpected note that may startle fans of the musical. The audience can decide whether it adds or detracts from the final mood.

The production is spot-on in its casting. Area theatergoers will be familiar with the three featured performers—Jonathan Weir as Fredrik, Shannon Cochran as Desiree, and Deanna Dunagan as Madame Armfeldt, and they do not disappoint. Weir is best known as a classical actor but he displays a surprisingly strong voice to enhance his portrait of the beleaguered Fredrik, dealing simultaneously with a kittenish wife less than half his age and a son roiling with turbulent emotions. Cochran fits Desiree’s personality to perfection, a woman in early middle-age who has seen much and done much, droll and very delightful. Her yearning and expressive take on “Send In the Clowns” is a production highlight. I’ve seen more acerbic Madame Armfeldt’s than Dunagan’s portrayal, but the actress deftly conveys the old woman’s imperious nature, cynicism, and urbanity.

Dan Zeff’s Chicago Review of A Little Night Music at Writers’ Theatre

The others in the cast are well up to the mark, especially as vocalists (neither Weir, Cochran, or Dunagan are primarily singers). Tiffany Scott is terrific as the unhappy Charlotte, trying to keep a civilized facade to conceal her hurt and anger over Carl-Magnus’s crass conduct. Her rendition of the “Every Day a Little Death” says everything that needs saying about loving an inattentive and insensitive husband. There is real bite and intelligence in her performance. Royen Kent succeeds in the difficult role of the anguished Henrik, a young man who is the butt of the older characters around him as he burns with longing.

Kristen French is fine as the immature and feckless Anne, a young lady emotionally unprepared to be the wife of a successful middle-aged man. Brandon Dahlquist throws himself into the role of the officious Carl-Magnus with lip-smacking relish, and he has one of the best voices in the company. And a special round of applause goes to Brianna Borger as Petra, who stops the show with her stirring rendition of “The Miller’s Son.” The ensemble is handsomely rounded out by Shannon Corey as Desiree’s daughter, J. Michael Finley as Frid, and Cory Goodrich as Desiree’s maid Malla.

The story is worldly, charming, and rueful–emotions eloquently displayed by Sondheim’s score, abetted by Hugh Wheeler’s underrated book. At Writers Theatre the show moves largely through the music with almost no choreography. The production dispenses with the Greek chorus of five lieder singers seen in the Broadway version; their singing interludes are now performed by the main characters. The elegance of the show is handsomely reinforced by Rachel Anne Healy’s stunning costume designs. Kevin Depinet is the scenic designer but most of the set consists of Nick Heggestad’s properties design, a sumptuous collection of furniture and carpets and candelabras. Jesse Klug’s lighting design bathes the production in a mellow midsummer Scandinavian glow. Andrew Hansen is the sound designer and Valerie Maze conducts the superb chamber music quintet that does great credit to Sondheim’s lilting waltz-driven score.

photos by Michael Brosilow

A Little Night Music
Writers Theatre
325 Tudor Court in Glencoe
ends on July 8, 2012 EXTENDED to August 12, 2012
for tickets, call 847 242 6000 or visit Writers Theatre

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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