After seeing the unsurpassable duo of Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch weave once-in-a-lifetime theatrical magic in the Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music back in 2010, I thought I was going to give this show some rest. Personally, I felt Peters’ luminously melancholy rendition of “Send in the Clowns” is the definitive performance of the song, capturing both the character Desiree’s and the songwriter Steve’s clear-eyed, painful introspection. Who can top that? But after hearing that Writer’s Theatre was staging Night Music as their spring production, I reconsidered. At Writer’s I had one of my most transcendent nights of recent theater, David Cromer’s unforgettable A Streetcar Named Desire. Also, this production would have the first official Chicago performance of Deanna Dunagan after her 2008 Tony win in August: Osage County, reason enough for rabid theater aficionados like me who have missed her to brave the Metra ride to Glencoe. Finally, I’m just a sucker for a Sondheim musical. Although I admire many parts of William Brown’s production, including the risks he and his actors take in re-inventing some of the key roles, I’m ultimately disappointed with this version of a Sondheim musical that I know so well (having seen many productions over the years as well as the exquisite source material, Ingmar Bergman’s film, Smiles of a Summer Night).
First the good news. Brown’s intimate staging in the reconfigured theater is well-realized, giving the audience extraordinary, up-close access to Night Music’s lively, tragic-comic romantic dalliances in turn of the century Sweden which involve an aging actress, Desiree Armfeldt, her former and current lovers, their respective spouses, and an assortment of family members and servants. The play, as is Bergman’s film, is a chamber piece, so the closed-quarters staging, devoid of massive Broadway sets, complements the spirit of the material (the prolific Kevin Depinet, whose impressive set design is also on view at the Goodman’s The Iceman Cometh, uses thoughtfully-chosen props- a vase of stunningly-bright flowers; a chaise lounge- to capture the sense of place without resorting to uncalled-for minimalism). The orchestra is a barebones five musicians but they play beautifully and powerfully, sometimes too beautifully and powerfully as to distract from the actors’ unamplified singing (but that’s a minor quibble). And speaking of the singing, the entire cast sings, for the most part, delightfully, lusciously, lustily, so appropriate for a show about love and sex, both consummated and un. Tiffany Scott is a particular standout, both sardonic and lonely, in the showy role of the put-upon wife of Desiree’s current lover.
But the singing is both separate from yet intrinsically woven in with the acting, since Night Music is after all musical theater and not a concert. I applaud Brown and his actors for risking fresh interpretations of some of the most beloved and iconic roles in the Sondheim musical theater canon, but ultimately, for me, the characterizations should make sense. Dunagan’s Madame Armfeldt, Desiree’s mother, is partly there. I like how she plays her as flirtatious, genteel, charming, dazzlingly feminine, so it’s no surprise that kings and dukes would fall hard for her and give her castles and fortunes, as she recounts in her showstopper “Liaisons” (and Dunagan gives a riveting performance). It’s so different from the usual crusty, life-exhausted dowager types that Stritch on Broadway or Zoe Caldwell at Ravinia played. But it is a very youthful, vigorous, sexy performance, still full of life-affirmation, which goes against Madame Armfeldt’s deathwatch…for her death. So at the end of the play, when the night’s third smile comes and she dies, you’re confused. How can she die when she was just charmingly and wittily presiding over a dinner party minutes before? The transition for the audience isn’t there.
More perplexing is Shannon Cochran’s Desiree. When she first meets her former lover Fredrik (suavely played by velvet-voiced Jonathan Weir) in her dressing room, she’s swigging a beer with her bathrobe open; Cochran’s take on the number “A Glamorous Life” is half unflappable touring actress and half snarky Kathy Griffin. It’s an earthy, lusty, just-one-of–the-boys characterization, strong, powerful, independent, a woman who can laugh at herself and her mistakes, and makes no apologies for the choices she has made in her life. Well, the problem is, “Send in the Clowns”, Desiree’s iconic number and one of the most famous musical theater songs of all time, is about a woman who realizes that she has made regrettable choices in her life. Peters beautifully, effectively communicates that on Broadway, and Cochran to a certain extent in this production does, but in so doing, the character’s previous behavior and motivations don’t make sense. And given Cochran’s no-bullshit, no-drama Desiree, you’re left wondering why she would put up with the juvenile bullying of her current lover Count Magnus.
Brianna Bolger’s bold rethink of Petra, the servant of Fredrik’s household, is more successful. Instead of the usual bawdy, seductive Petra like a pre-Grey’s Anatomy Sara Ramirez at Ravinia, Bolger’s Petra plays older, is more world-weary, more guarded, and more able to not take the world seriously. Her “The Miller’s Son” is exceptionally-sung, and tremendously-layered: here’s someone who has used her wiles and her sex to survive but knows she has reached a plateau, both because of her age and her social circumstances. Bolger’s performance of the song so clearly articulates the class distinctions in Sweden that both Bergman and Sondheim and book writer Hugh Wheeler write about, a quality that other performances of this song I have seen doesn’t capture as well.
A flawed production of A Little Night Music can still outclass productions of other musicals because of Sondheim’s genius. And as an audience member I always welcome fresh perspectives on characters and plays. They’re risky, but if they work, the production can be incomparable. As Sondheim’s characters know, you’ll have to take risks to know true happiness.
A Little Night Music is playing at Writer’s Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, IL until July 8.
Tags: Writer's Theatre