Chicago Theater Review: A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (BoHo Theatre)

by Lawrence Bommer on May 26, 2018

in Theater-Chicago

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EINE KLEINE SWEDISH SOLSTICE

Some 40 years after its birth, A Little Night Music feels like it’s always been here. Wisely and warmly, composer Stephen Sondheim and writer Hugh Wheeler, borrowing from one of Ingmar Bergman’s finest films (Smiles of a Summer Night), compassionately anatomize three mismatched turn-of-the-century couples. They’re midsummer fools of love caught in the spell of one of Sweden’s languorous “white” nights.

Farcical, melancholy, carnal or bittersweet, the plot alters with the characters. As with Shakespeare’s tangled lovers, they amorously re-sort themselves in the course of a weekend in the country. But before they rearrange their relationships to finally fit their hearts, three generations of Swedish seekers manage to rub each other wrong in all the right ways.

In two and a half marvelous hours we see a grandmother’s legend come true: With its “perpetual anticipation” and endless twilight, the Swedish summer night smiles three times — on the young, the fools and the old — “particularly broadly” on the fools (here also called “clowns”).

The show smiles too, at least three times, maybe twenty: Sondheim’s all-waltz score supplies the requisite verve, wit and drive: You won’t mistake his magic three-quarter time for Strauss, but each selection advances the story and enlarges the stakes.

The only question that counts is whether BoHo Theatre’s modestly budgeted revival at the Greenhouse Theater Center is worthy of the work — as Writers’ Theater’s 2012 production was and Goodman Theatre’s 1994 trivialization was not.

A qualified yes! Suitably lavish — especially in Christina Leinicke’s suave and fashion-plate Edwardian costumes, Linda Fortunato’s cascading staging (that swirls around music director Tom Vendafreddo’s downstage orchestra) — performed on a remarkably intimate stage, is free and fun, and so intricately shaped it can afford to be as natural as fireflies in flight.

Framed by the all-purpose birch trees that suggest Swedish woodlands, Evan Frank’s jewel-box proscenium set (complete with curtain) all but unleashes the action upstage and into the wings: Scattered furniture and pivotal props suggest an 18th-century Scandinavian stage, drawing rooms, a large lawn and the requisite magical woods. G. “Max” Maxin IV lights this magic act with all the lenses that four-star make-believe requires.

The same artful elegance graces the unmiked and — considering the context — unexpectedly spontaneous performances. As elegantly Mozartean as the title, this Little Night is blessed with cunning casting capable of generating the suggestions and actualities of sexual friction that a capricious text requires.

Simpering but never stupid, Rachel Guth instantly conveys the quicksilver intensity of virginal, 18-year-old Anne Egerman, her confusion about a fallow marriage to a much older lawyer impossible to hide or to dismiss. Another teenage virgin, Jordan Dell Harris’s forthright Henrik sulks suitably but never condescends: His sweetly ignorant seminary student really is torn between adolescent awkwardness and sexual awakening. Henrik’s “Later” never reeks of self-pity, just all the doubts we once harbored and mustn’t forget.

With her devastating deadpan, Stephanie Stockstill exacts toxic laughs as the brittle, bitter Countess Charlotte Malcolm: Never playing the wronged wife too broadly, she preserves her pathos amid her plotting. Christopher Davis, brassy and unrelenting as her strapping Count Carl-Magnus, energizes Sondheim’s more muscular and military waltzes and beefs up the depiction of male hypocrisy and entitlement.

At the center of this story is a matriarch whose amorous experiences fuel Sondheim’s captivating blend of cynicism and sentimentality. As magisterial Madame Armfeldt, a woman with a dozen “pasts,” Marguerite Mariama delivers no flinty northern Lady Bracknell. Even without the usual wheelchair, she incarnates Wheeler’s wistful, life-proof dowager-courtesan with all her rueful survivor wisdom and a sly smile. Her fully felt “Liaisons” is a sex novel bathed in redemptive nostalgia and minus a single regret.

Crowning an ensemble creative enough to task risks and accomplished enough not to need to, Kelli Harrington makes us never want to forget — or even be momentarily apart from — her stage-weary, glamorous Desiree: Her bittersweet “Send in the Clowns,” the ultimate anthem for mid-life crises everywhere, marinates in dignified regret. Every note matters as Desiree attempts to find a “coherent existence after so many years of muddle.” Skilled at effacing the actress in order to show us Desiree’s sole role, Harrington’s delicious diva earns her name: Desiree’s artful vulnerability is a wonderful contradiction.

As he dabbles in “retroactive fidelity,” pursuing a lost love that, if found, will make sense of everything else, Peter Robel’s Fredrik betrays his own contradictions. Fredrik is caught up in a forced and frenzied choice between a hasty marriage and a lasting liaison. Robel registers every whiplash plot twist until, by painful process of elimination, Fredrik finds his once and future destiny.

Musically impeccable, the chorus-commenting Liebeslieder Singers turn their lovely melodies into a merry counterpoint to these Shakespearean mistakes of a summer night. Presenting the earthy side of summer passion, Teressa LaGamba’s Petra (here made bi-sexual) transforms “The Miller’s Son” into a testament to lust at its most calculating and liberating. Though she needs to project more, Isabelle Roberts turns Desiree’s daughter, Fredrika, into an innocent dreamer whose questions fuel the tale.

So many lovely moments embellish this well-felt, well-sung Music — it’s easy, even enthralling, to sense the spell and see the smiles of this special summer night.

photos by Liz Lauren

A Little Night Music
BoHo Theatre
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N Lincoln Ave.
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 2:30
ends on July 8, 2018
for tickets, call 773.404.7336 or visit BoHo

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