Amazing Journey

Griffin's 'Night Music' plays with richness, maturity
The Chicago Tribune
By Chris Jones
Tribune arts reporter

In its numerous self-consciously swirling revivals during the last 30 years, "A Little Night Music" frequently has been strangled to a dull little death by the Mephistophelean metaphor of the circular waltz.

Seduced by the dominant style of Stephen Sondheim's music, the old-world elegance flowing from the relationship-driven source material (Ingmar Bergman's "Smiles of a Summer Night)" and the typical operetta practitioner's affinity for stylistic pretension, countless directors have turned this wise, profound and existentially aware show into a period jaunt in evening wear on a picture-laden carousel. "Send in the Clowns," indeed.

Gary Griffin of Chicago is not in that number.

Griffin, who not so long ago was plugging away for a few bucks in Oakbrook Terrace, has crafted a now-formidable international reputation by removing the detritus from the American musical and refocusing the audience on the genre's more profound preoccupations, such as class and race, life and death. He's not known in London and New York so much for what he can add, but for what he takes away.

Instead of the country house ambiance that typically attaches itself to this intergenerational musical of sexual intrigue like kudzu attacking a Georgia peach, Griffin smartly re-aligns the work's focus on the stupidity of the young, the desperate writhings of the middle-age and insecure, and the observation that a little sensual night music might be about all there is 'till death do surely part.

As the ripe maid observes, it's a very short road from the pinch to the paunch, so it's probably smart to kiss a few mouths before one finds oneself having to feed them. In most of Griffin's previous musical work in Chicago — such as his widely acclaimed "Pacific Overtures" at Chicago Shakespeare or his "My Fair Lady" at the Court Theatre — his stripping away was artistic innovation born of financial necessity.

But with this thoroughly beguiling and indisputably world-class show on the mainstage of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Griffin finally has been given a budget big enough and a theatrical canvas of sufficient scale that he can do his usual thing and yet also keep all the good stuff intact.

In many ways, this very smart and potent show is a preview of what we can expect from Griffin when he makes his long-in-the-works transition to Broadway director. He's already working here with Ken Billington, one of the Great White Way's leading lighting luminaries, who can suddenly flesh out a human face with seemingly casual but staggeringly precise finesse. There's not a lot of set from Dan Ostling (a few bits of furniture float in the air), but Billington's work represents the best lighting seen in Chicago all year.

Griffin also has unusually rich depth in his cast. The grand, booming voice of Michael Cerveris (the original Tommy in "The Who's Tommy" on Broadway) shows up in the second-tier role of the Count, usually a one-dimensional throwaway. Thanks to Chicago Shakespeare's trip to the West End last year with "Pacific Overtures," "Night Music" had three contracts reserved for members of British Equity. They were very well used on the likes of Samantha Spiro, a comedy veteran who turns the cuckolded countess into a spigot of sarcasm; Helen Ryan, a doyen of the British stage who dispenses droll bon mots from her wheelchair with delicious aplomb; and the cheerfully messy and upper-class Paul Keating, whose writhings as poor Henrick lack any and all irony, which is a good thing since this show reserves that quality exclusively for the old.

In the two lead roles, neither Barbara Robertson nor Kevin Gudahl have huge legit voices — Gudhal's reedy instrument thins out on top quite quickly. But they're in such fine acting fettle and so secure here that one forgives that. Most Desirees are shopworn malcontents — the dynamic Robertson gives her the manic energy of a provincial Elizabeth I, which makes her discovery of emptiness all the more devastating.

Not all of Griffin's staging is dazzlingly counter-intuitive — the emotional crisis leading to "Send in the Clowns" occurs way up-stage in a corner, which diminishes its impact. And not all the casting is pitch-perfect — the youthful and immensely talented Jenny Powers has a formidable lower register and staggering assuredness, but she'll need to lose more of that self-protective glamor if she's to convince us she's an earthy maid with designs on a miller.

But those are minor quibbles at the end of a lush and smart weekend in the country. This is Griffin's most mature and successful Chicago show to date — a fine marriage of traditional craft and progressive innovation, simplicity and expansiveness. It's populated by the internationally accomplished, and by Chicagoans at the very top of their game.


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