Supreme Sondheim at Theo

Photo by Elizabeth Stenholt Photography

Theo Ubique has had a lot of fun with Stephen Sondheim this season, with Assassins in the fall and an original musical tribute in the winter, but they have saved the best for last. Their production of A Little Night Music is a complete joy and one of the best I can ever recall seeing.

Any great production of this play begins, of course, with the casting, and Christopher Pazdernik has outdone themself, filling the Theo stage with players who perfectly embody their characters in appearance, vocals, and performance. This is one of those productions without a weak link; the entire cast is a joy, providing director L. Walter Stearns with a lot to work with.

The coup of the casting is probably getting Honey West to play Madame Armfeldt. Permanently seated in an old wooden wheelchair, West lends her emotional gravitas to the musical in such numbers as “Liaisons” (in which she laments a bygone era marked by extravagance) while providing a powerful center for this play about a weekend of dalliances and frivolity. Armfeldt’s Scandanavian chateau, along with a sunset-free northern night, provides a setting in which pretty much anything can happen…with the right combination of ingredients.

The key ingredient proves to be built on liaisons that have nothing to do with the estate’s matron. Her daughter, actress Desiree Armfeldt (played by the always wonderful Collette Todd, whose “Send in the Clowns” is one of the loveliest and saddest versions of that song I’ve ever heard), conceives of a plan to settle down her own unsettled life (which is not as “glamorous” as one might think) by reigniting an old flame with lawyer Fredrik Egerman (Patrick Byrnes). If it works, she will be able to say goodbye to touring and provide her daughter, who may or may not be the result of her former affair with Egerman and is in fact named Fredrika (Tessa Newman), with a father. Both Newman and Byrnes complement Todd well through Fredrika’s childlike innocence and effervescence and the torch that Egerman can hardly admit to himself that he still carries.

Both Desiree and Fredrik have complications to get around if anything is to happen during this dreamlike midsummer weekend. Desiree has been having an affair with a pea-brained dragoon named Carl-Magnus (Kevin Webb in yet another perfectly conceived performance), who himself is married to the frustrated Charlotte (Maya Rowe). (Rowe’s plaintive rendition of “Every Day a Little Death” is a rare and painful glimpse behind the societal curtains.) Carl-Magnus is the kind of man who openly plays around on his wife but, if his mistress ever has an affair, blows his top. This is, of course, exactly what happens, as Egerman, after his young wife Anne (Chamaya Moody)—”unfortunately still a virgin” after eighteen months of marriage—finds herself once again unable to get past her innate revulsion to sex with an older man, turns to his former lover for solace (with a side order of hot Nordic sex). What Egerman doesn’t know about is his wife’s infatuation and near-constant flirtation with his son Henrik (J Alan) and the fact that Henrik, in turn, is deeply in love with her. (Alan brings a lot of sincerity and sensitivity to a role that, due to the son’s hyper-religiosity, often comes off as a caricature.)

Moody, whose sweet and innocent teen wife loves her “old dry as dust” husband while yearning to be with her stepson, brings all of the perfect facial and vocal expressions to this awkward scenario, playing off of Rowe’s Charlotte (whose “friendship” is all about getting some comeuppance for her errant husband) and Madison Kaufman’s Petra, the Egermans’ sensual servant. (Kaufman gets her own highlight with the show’s 11:00 number, the bawdy “The Miller’s Son,” in which the giddy, hypersexual Petra sings that she needs to “celebrate everything passing by.”)

In addition to Petra, a small ensemble featuring Mizha Lee Overn, Michael Penick, and Peter Ruger portrays other servants in these households and handles all of the crossover and establishment scenes with solid voices and focus. Any of them could easily have been leads, and in songs such as “Remember” and “The Sun Won’t Set,” they beautifully set the play’s mood. These pensive, langorous ensemble numbers encapsulate the time and place, and the singers (backed by Eugene Dizon’s talented ensemble of musicians) help us feel the endless Scandanavian summer night even on a chilly evening in Chicago.

Director Stearns, along with choreographer Brenda Didier, guides the cast through movement and dance that reflect the upper-class setting. (Think “Bridgerton” but in Sweden and without all of the gossip and the court stuff and…OK, maybe not so much Bridgerton after all.) The exquisite performances that Stearns gets from his cast make the characters and the era shine, breathing glorious life into Sondheim’s intricately structured but ultimately frothy musical. This is, after all, Sondheim in blithely pastoral mode, far removed from his darker plays like Sweeney Todd and Passion. The Act One closer, “A Weekend in the Country,” feels closer to the opening of Into the Woods than anything else with its interlocked bits of gloriously contrived silliness and its catchy, hummable refrain. It’s a composition that perfectly reflects the play it is a part of: bouncy and witty, full of droll comments on this upper-class retreat (“so inactive that one has to lie down”), and bound up in the kind of overlapping movements that the composer is known for. A Little Night Music is simply Sondheim at his best and this production Theo at its best, which makes it musical theatre at its best and something not to be missed.

A Little Night Music is now playing at Theo Ubique, 721 Howard Street, until Jul 14. Tickets are available at theo-u.com. For more Chicago reviews or show information, see chicagoonstage.com or theatreinchicago.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *