Amazing Journey

Gary Griffin directs revival of classic `Little Night Music'

By Lawrence Bommer
Published December 26, 2003

Thirty years ago Stephen Sondheim wrote "A Little Night Music," the Tony-winning, all-waltz musical based on Ingmar Bergman's wonderful film "Smiles of a Summer Night." Compassionate to the fools we mortals can be, his operetta-like slice of love chronicles one very amorous weekend in the country, a Scandinavian twilight world where the sun barely sets and lust hangs in the air. Romantic young passion gets consummated, reflexive old love is renewed and rejected, and illusions both reinvented and exposed.

Now running on the Courtyard stage of Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Gary Griffin's revival features a 14-piece orchestra and a full company of actors and designers from Chicago, New York and London. Local favorites Kevin Gudahl and Barbara Robertson appear as former flames Frederick and Desiree, following their recent work in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's co-production with London's Donmar Warehouse of another Sondheim gem, "Pacific Overtures."

Sondheim's score may be cut all from the same tempo (including a mazurka variation) but for believers like Griffin that just means a different brilliance: "Sondheim flourishes when he works in a certain specificity. Here he challenged himself: How within this single kind of music can you find as many expressions of human character as the story requires?

"What's brilliant," Griffin continues, "is that there's a grand waltz, a plaintive one, and some very crude and physical varieties. They perfectly mirror the people."

Reflecting on the show's most famous waltz, "Send In the Clowns," Griffin notes "how it provides a kind of comic relief. Far from a sad ballad, it's about two lovers at a charged and pivotal point in their careers. The actress Desiree is very aware of the theatricality of a second romance with Frederick. She knows that if this were Shakespeare, someone would need to send in the clowns to relieve the tension."

Griffin appreciates the mainstage as the "perfect setting for this piece," and argues that "the Courtyard Theater will retain the intimacy we've achieved in the [smaller] upstairs theater but will let us present an enhanced production with a full orchestra and amenities impossible in smaller theaters. The delicacy of `A Little Night Music' will be palpable in this space."

"A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC" runs through Feb. 15 at the Courtyard Theater, Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand. Ave.; $48, $62; 312-595-5600.

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