BWW Review: Gorgeous A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC at Theater Latte Da
Theater Latte Da's well-cast production of Sondheim's A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC is gorgeous to look at and sweet on the ear. Like many great musicals, it depends on the master narrative of romance, but in Sondheim's hands that narrative gets a wider treatment than usual: not only are some of the lovers well beyond their ingenue years, but the characters are also by turns cynical, nostalgic, randy, anguished, manipulative, ecstatic, and resigned.
Sondheim's original director, Hal Prince, once famously said that this script was "whipped cream with knives." Both are in full exhibition here, wielded by a talented ensemble under Peter Rothstein's direction. They can handle Sondheim's characteristically fast, witty lyrics as well as the simultaneous interweaving of solo melodic lines. The score is a tuneful, clever collection of numbers that are all in variations of ¾ time (waltz, mazurka, gigue, sarabande, etc.) revolving around a collection of four couples involved in love triangles which will eventually be set right. Music Director Jason Hansen is at the piano upstage center with his band of four additional musicians, dressed in period clothes, and veiled slightly by a gauzy curtain. The balance of voices and instrumentals was managed masterfully on opening night.
This musical was inspired by Ingmar Bergman's 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night. It's set in Sweden around 1900. Part of what makes this show so popular is the spectacle of watching fancy folk in fancy clothes (who are not our political leaders) behaving badly, saying things that people with less privilege might well self-censor. Costume designer Rich Hamson delivers (with the indispensable help of four drapers and four stitchers) a big collection of elegant costumes marked by exquisite detail: pleats, embroidery, ruffles, bustles, veils, etc. I especially liked the Act 1 costumes, which are all executed in shades of cream and ecru, in a wide variety of fabrics and textures.
Scenic designer Joel Sass provides a spacious and flexible set which can suggest both interiors and exteriors, with the help of actors rearranging furnishings as needed during the action so as not to interfere with the pace. That we are in the fanciful world of theater is established immediately by the presence of a milk-washed grand piano half-buried in reeds downstage right; it will be played but also serve as a hiding place and a mossy bank on which a couple can make love. Director Rothstein chooses to open the show with the whole cast on stage in period underclothes performing a stylized warmup based on barre exercises, viewed through another full size lacy gauzy curtain at the edge of the apron. This welcomes us in to the voyeuristic pleasures of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC with just the right mix of formality and earthiness. Stylized staging of other key moments is interspersed with more naturalistic staging in the two-person scenes.
Three households are central to the plot. First, the female-dominant Armfeldts: an aged grandmother with a colorful past, a middle-aged mother who is a touring actress, and her 14 year old daughter who lives on her grandmother's estate. They have a loyal manservant, Frid. Household two are the Egermans: middle-aged Frederik, a lawyer; his young trophy wife Anne; and his agitated son Henrik, who is studying for the ministry. Their maidservant is Petra. Household three is Count Carl-Magnus and his wife Charlotte; he's full of military bluster, and she's hopelessly in love with him despite his infidelities and disregard for her.
The central couple of actress Desiree and her former lover Frederic are played by two of the Twin Cities' most experienced singing actors: Sally Wingert and Mark Benninghofen. They are well-matched: both more craggy than stunning in looks, sardonic, tender, with a mature awareness that human passions can render us absurd.
While the whole cast is quite strong vocally, to my eye the two performers who stand out for their acting chops are Riley McNutt as young Henrik and Britta Ollmann as Petra. I admire actors who can shed all vanity to play characters who are miserably inept and thus prone to extreme embarrassment. Henrik is that kind of part, and McNutt nails it. Petra has one of the most unusual solos for a woman in the musical theater canon ("The Miller's Son") which requires explicit horniness blended with a certain kind of existential wisdom. That's hard to pull off, and she does it.
Rodolfo Nieto and Elizabeth Hawkinson as the Count and Countess play the least sympathetic roles in this story; both are most notable for their fine strong voices. He plays the Count as rule-bound and dense; she's conniving and steely as a cover for her anguish. Grace Chermak does what she can to make Anne charming as well as childish while holding out for personal authenticity, though she doesn't really understand that's what she's after. Susan Hofflander as the aging grandmother has big round contralto tones but could bring her acted performance down a notch to match the size of the 240 seat Ritz Theater that's home to Latte Da. Youngster Mabel Weismann has taken direction ably though she doesn't yet bring much personal expressiveness to the role; I hope she'll warm up to the part once she gets past opening night stiffness. She'd do well to study consummate pro Bradley Greenwald, who makes every moment count as Frid; somehow he is able to comment with just downcast eyes and a lifted eyebrow. .
A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC displays Sondheim's mastery of form, and the assembled team at Theater Latte Da brings high levels of artistry to this production. It makes for a delightful evening. The show runs a full 2 hours and 30 minutes with one intermission. You can catch it in Northeast Minneapolis through March 3.
Photo credit: Dan Norman