Theater Review: ‘A Little Night Music’ at Writers’ Theatre extended again … to Aug. 12! GO!

Shannon Cochran as Desiree. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

By Bill Beard
Theater Critic

That headline says it all! You can still hit the north Chicago ’burbs and see a terrific production of one of the best musicals ever conceived. A Little Night Music is one of Stephen Sondheim’s absolute best works! Writers’ Theatre is one of Chicago’s finest professional groups; and the fact that the show is going into its third extension should be enough to attract theater lovers to hurry to Glencoe to enjoy it! The original reviews were superlative! And let me add mine right now!

This is definitely one of the top regional theater companies this side of New York. Its primary home, 108 seats, is in the charming historic (1938) Women’s Library Club of Glencoe (325 Tudor Court), with an intimate second space in the rear of an active bookstore on Glencoe’s main street. Both spaces guarantee theater of great excellence, often of challenging, seldom-performed shows. The current production of Sondheim’s brilliant and demanding musical is a perfect example.

The story is described thus: “Set in turn-of-the-century Sweden, A Little Night Music is a sumptuous musical celebration of love. Desiree Armfeldt has always captured the hearts of men. When both of her lovers! And their wives! show up for a weekend in the country, the boundless possibilities of an old romance and newly-awakened passions bring endless surprises. Full of quick wit and evoking the harmonious rhythm of waltz time, Tony Award-winner Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music is the must-see musical of the season.” And indeed it is.

The recent Broadway revival, with Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones, was brilliant; but Director William Brown has gathered an excellent cast of his own, led by the wonderful Shannon Cochran as Desiree. Ms. Cochran’s statuesque height matches the atmospheric quality of her talent. Her Desiree seems to exhibit a basic earthiness, yet she rather sails above it all with great ease. Both Cochran and her Desiree are “in control.” Her charming, almost under-played rendition of “Send In The Clowns” was a pleasant surprise. Her naturalness throughout was captivating.

Deanna Dunagan as Madame Arnfeldt. (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

Others “in command” on stage were the Count and Countess Malcolm, played by the robustly handsome Brandon Dahlquist and the multiply talented Tiffany Scott. Both are splendid in their perfectly-styled characterizations, keeping that precarious balance between “just enough” and “a bit over the top.” Also, they both have rich, strong singing voices, which also add tremendously to the quintet of Lieder singers (which are usually separately cast, but in this case handled by leading players doing double duty). Actually, this proves extremely effective, because the musical demands Sondheim puts on the quintet are formidable, and all five singers are flawless. Indeed, Brianna Borger’s “I Shall Marry the Miller’s Son” was superb.

The marvelous Deanna Dunagan offers an unusually soft and sophisticated Madame Armfeldt. The original Hermione Gingold was wonderful with just a touch of bawdiness, Angela Lansbury was just a bit overacted, and Elaine Stritch was her usual acerbic self. But here, Dunagan’s elegant matriarch is almost royal, subtly underplayed, but still a pillar of power. Her quiet “Liaisons” had a wonderful glow of pleasant memories, with just enough of the bittersweet to let us see what a woman she had been.

Somewhat less successful was the handling of the first act trio by Jonathan Weir as Fredrik Egerman, Kristen French as Anne Egerman and Royen Kent as Henrik Egerman. One of Sondheim’s cleverest conceits, “Now! Later! Soon!”, is an ingenious combination of three solos, revealing some basic character flaws and plot intrigue. The voices seemed somewhat insecure, and the emotional interpretation of the lyrics needed a more passionate involvement.

Technically, the production is stunning. Kevin Depinet’s minimalist scenery was immaculate, and Rachel Anne Healy’s costumes strikingly elegant.

Certainly, this is one of those shows that any musical theater lover should put on their “Absolutely Do Not Miss!” list. And now, you have until Aug. 12! For information and tickets: 847-242-6000.

From the June 20-26, 2012, issue

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