Wednesday, May 16, 2012

NOT SO PRIM, NOT SO PROPER - 'A Little Night Music' at Writers' Theatre

(Photo by Michael Brosilow)

"Was that a farce?" asks Desirée during the reprise duet of Stephen Sondheim's famous "Send In The Clowns", a song most rapturously heard within the context of its story   a subversive theatrical reference to loony comedy covering up disaster. Good question though, Desirée. The flip-flopping lovers gallivanting carelessly through a 1900 Swedish estate would seem to argue that, yes, "A Little Night Music", with a score by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Hugh Wheeler, is an escapist comedy the likes of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" - but nestled in that frame are some of the most perceptive songs of Sondheim's prolific body of work. Songs about life, love, and class, a particularly scary topic in the context of nineteenth century Sweden. Deceptively silly, "A Little Night Music" is actually a riveting Chekhov play masquerading as a wistful, effervescent musical.

That Chekhovian cocktail of romantic comedy and wise social commentary is in fine form at Writers Theatre in Glencoe. Writers has a marvelous understanding and appreciation of its own size, and its new production of A Little Night Music, which opened on Thursday night at its one hundred eight-seat Tudor Court theatre, intensifies that stirring privacy so often lost in productions or filmed versions of the Smiles On A Summer Night stage adaptation.

Desirée Armfeldt (Shannon Cochran), a lauded actress succumbing to middle age, finds herself rekindling an old flame of long lost love with the regal Fredrik Egerman (a warm and infinitely cooky Jonathan Weir), a family man with a young virgin wife, Anne (Kristen French) and a depressed, bashful son, Henrik (Royen Kent). Complicated by marriages, families, mistresses, and Counts, the two lovers efforts to stay apart and come together are, all at once, delightful, saddening, and blissfully romantic. And Writers tiny, yet feisty space infuses even more emotional resonance into the already heartfelt hijinks.

Intimate productions of Stephen Sondheim's works are quite common nowadays. John Doyle's recent Broadway revivals of Sweeney Todd and Company, the former having toured to Chicago, went so far as to put instruments in the hands of the actors, inciting a musician's union firestorm all in the name of intimacy. The 2009 Broadway revival of "A Little Night Music," a transfer from London's Menier Chocolate Factory starring Catherine Zeta Jones and eventually Bernadette Peters, also minimized the play's orchestrations to uneven effect. But there is always a hovering caveat to Sondheim-as-chamber-musical, and that is the missing lushness of the score.

Jonathan Tunick's role in Sondheim's success is often understated, but his orchestrations were always as groundbreaking and unprecedented as the master composer's scores. A Little Night Music is one of Sondheims best, incorporating an uncharacteristic amount of memorable melodies into the songs while keeping true to his complex meter and lyricism. And the splendor of Sondheims creation is beautifully reverberated in the fullness of Tunicks orchestrations. That grandeur is sadly missing from Writers five-person pit, lead by director Brown and unabashedly placed upstage. Songs like the Act One finale, A Weekend In The Country, and the swelling reprise of Send In The Clowns in the plays final moments lack the unparalleled thrill elicited by unbridled vocal and orchestral power.

But William Browns unintentionally site-specific production in the idyllic town of Glencoe eases the absence of the musicals auditory bigness, fixing its focus on the ever important, smaller numbers like the mega-hit Send In The Clowns and the heart wrenching Everyday A Little Death. The relationships, their twists and turns, have never been represented quite so clearly as they are here. On Kevin Depinets set of simply draped fabric and a marble green floor, attention is paid solely to the fine array of actors. A parade of wonderful performances traipse the boards at Writers, particularly from the women.

Sung with vibrant pain by Tiffany Scott, “Everyday A Little Death” is one of many small-but-mighty victories of Writers’ production. Scott’s Charlotte is a fractured rendition of the uptight Countess, struggling to survive in a relationship with Count Carl-Magnus, an inflated manly man requiring her to unflinchingly accept his infidelities – including his affair with Desirée. Charlotte adorns a mask of bitter sassiness, feigning the illusion of contentment, but the character is anything but content. Scott’s brash verbal self-defense and her subdued cheerless despair make for a hauntingly memorable Charlotte Malcolm.

With the compacting of the working-class chorus – the poor employment of the “Night Waltz” bookending the play being the only glaring mistake in Brown’s production – the most depthful class commentary is saddled on Petra, a servant played by Brianna Borger with a fire raging behind her infectious smile. Borger’s turn at the formidably difficult “The Miller’s Son”, a song in which Petra fantasizes about her future husband – a businessman or the Prince of Wales – only to realize her stationary place in society, is magnificently well sung, with unrivaled lyrical clarity and gorgeous expressiveness.

Much has been made of Deanna Dunagan’s return to the stage, here, as Madame Armfeldt, Desirée’s aged mother with a salacious past. Last seen in Chicago in her Tony Award-winning role as Violet Weston in Steppenwolf’s “August: Osage County”, Dunagan is back – this time in a musical. Unlike Violet and most Madame Armfeldts you will ever see, Dunagan is nice as peach pie. Dunagan softens Armfeldt’s bite, which, though an intriguing variation on the part, reduces the character to a fleeting and mostly humorless cameo. Seemingly complacent, Madame Armfeldt’s recollections of a fonder, more scandalous yesterday are, here, somewhat redundant.  

But by far, the most off-the-wall interpretation in Writer’s “Night Music” is Shannon Cochran as the middle-aged actress with a flair for flings, Desirée Armfeldt. In SAT parlance, Cochran’s Desirée is to Glynis Johns’ (the role’s originator, and a perpetually aristocratic rose) as Princess Dianna is to Queen Victoria. Cochran’s uncommonly casual, fun-loving Desirée brings a great deal of clarity to all the calamitous efforts these men go through to win her over. In Writers’ production, Desirée is a girl you can pound down a beer with – a not-so-crazy choice if you consider the Strindbergian parallels. Of course, there are no suicides in “A Little Night Music”.

Despite a few less than successful performances – Royen Kent plays the young, woeful Henrik Egerman with a far too modern teenage disposition, complete with “um”s and “uh”s, and as his close-in-age stepmother, Anne, Kristen French allows naivety to cloud her entire portrayal -  Writers’ “A Little Night Music” is a sweet and pleasurably sorrowful treat. Experiencing this garden romp outside of the artificiality of the city, surrounded by spring trees and new-grown grasses, makes for a buoyant and cleansing “weekend in the country”.

"A Little Night Music" with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Hugh Wheeler runs at Writers' Theatre in Glencoe through July 8th.