Amazing Journey

'A Little Night Music' to swoon by
The Chicago Sun Times
December 31st, 2003
BY Hedy Weiss Theater Critic

Trick question: Who is the contemporary American equivalent of William Shakespeare?

Hint: Study Chicago Shakespeare Theater's programming over the last few seasons to discover the answer. His name is Stephen Sondheim.

The Bard, of course, gets top billing on the theater's marquee, and dominates the lineup. But Sondheim, the great lyric poet of the American musical theater -- and an artist whose creative output, like Shakespeare's, ranges from tragedy and history plays to romantic comedies -- has unofficially become his modern counterpart here thanks to director Gary Griffin's stunning productions of "Pacific Overtures," "Sunday in the Park With George" and now "A Little Night Music."

It is "Night Music," Sondheim's enchanted and enchanting 1973 musical in waltz time -- which opened Monday might in a spellbinding rendering -- that in many ways is the composer-lyricist's most Shakespearean work. Inspired by Ingmar Bergman's early film "Smiles of a Summer Night," it has strong hints of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "Much Ado About Nothing" and "As You Like It." And, as in those rueful romances, the characters in this musical are often on the brink of madness as a result of love (or the lack of it). They are obsessed with marriage (which they variously pursue, endure or elude). And they almost willfully make complete fools of themselves. In addition, their amorous misadventures are played out both "in town" and "in nature" (at a country estate where all goes haywire but ultimately is set straight).

The operative word in this blissfully seductive show, with its lovely book by Hugh Wheeler, is "liaisons" -- whether of the Old World kind described in the marvelous song bearing that title, or the kind encapsulated by the pivotal mid-life romance so memorably captured in the show's hit song "Send in the Clowns." (The latter is performed here by Barbara Robertson, an actress of extraordinary emotional vivacity, who endows it with new meaning.)

Part delicious throwback to operetta, and part period comedy of manners as timely as "Sex and the City," Griffin's production unspools with the wonderfully dizzying quality of a carousel revolving at high speed. Keeping it in motion is a 15-piece onstage orchestra rich in strings (under the splendid musical direction of Thomas Murray), plus a sublime cast of veteran Chicago actors complemented by a handful of Broadway and British imports.

Set among the bourgeoisie of late 19th century Sweden, "Night Music" swirls around Fredrik Egerman (Kevin Gudahl, who winningly plays the knowing fool), a middle-aged lawyer recently married to the virginal 18-year-old Anne (Julie Ruth, a golden-voiced ingenue), who is certainly far better suited to his tormented adolescent son, Henrik (Paul Keating, darkly handsome and tragicomic). This is only underscored by Fredrik's reunion with his ex-mistress, Desiree Armfeldt (Robertson), a flamboyant actress far closer to him in age and experience.

The fact that Desiree is having an affair with a pompous military man, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Michael Cerveris in a lip-smackingly broad portrait), who is married to the devoted if understandably bitter Charlotte (Samantha Spiro in bold comic form), adds to the complications. So do Desiree's sharp, aging ex-courtesan mother, Madame Armfeldt (Helen Ryan, a silvery beauty with exquisite diction), and her precocious granddaughter Fredrika (the utterly beguiling Mattie Hawkinson).

Also driving the story is a bravura-voiced quintet of socialites (Jodi Jean Amble, Carol Kykendall, Kathryn Kamp, James Bank, John Clonts), and a lusty servant girl, Petra (the vocally rich and teasing Jenny Powers).

Designers Dan Ostling (sets) and Mara Blumenfeld (costumes) have devised a dreamy world of creamy floating furniture, lush greenery and starry gowns. But of course the real stars are Sondheim's peerless lyrics, lilting melodies and the loving laughter with which he suggests what fools we mortals can be.




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