Writers' Theatre has done something to "A Little Night Music" audiences may find impossible to forget.
So enchanting is director William Brown's comely, chamber-style revival of the 1973 Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical, it may well spoil for audiences subsequent productions staged in larger venues on a grander scale.
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"A Little Night Music"★ ★ ★ ★
Location: Writers' Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, (847) 242-6000 or writerstheatre.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 and 6 p.m. Sunday through July 18. No show July 4.
Running time: About two hours, 45 minutes with intermission
Parking: Street parking adjacent to the theater
Rating: For adults, contains strong language, sexual situations
Yet it's entirely fitting that this musical examining the heartbreak and humor that underscores our most intimate relationships should unfold in such an intimate space. In fact, watching Brown's knowing, richly wrought production, I found myself thinking "why yes, this is exactly how this show should be done."
Expertly acted and beautifully sung, the musical begins with a lilting vocalese and concludes with a contented sigh. In between we are treated to Wheeler's droll, insightful book, Sondheim's canny lyrics and his lovely, waltz-inspired score played by the fine quintet comprised of Andrew McCann, Jill Kaeding, Sean McNeely and Ben Melsky and led by music director/conductor/pianist Valerie Maze.
To say Writers' production has a surfeit of talent is an understatement. The top-tier cast includes Chicago area standouts Shannon Cochran and Jonathan Weir, in perfect sync as the playfully deferential former lovers who reunite in middle age, and 2008 Tony Award winner Deanna Dunagan ("August: Osage County") as an aging courtesan who perceives better than anyone what fools we make of ourselves when it comes to love.
One more word about the excellent cast. It says something about this show's depth of talent that 2010 Jeff Award winner Cory Goodrich, whose glorious voice is in top form, plays a supporting role as one of the lieder singers.
Set in Sweden at the turn of the 20th century, the musical chronicles the romantic entanglements -- and the accompanying heartbreak and humor -- of foolish young people and their slightly less foolish middle-aged counterparts.
At its center is Desiree Armfeldt, played with unassuming humor by the statuesque Cochran. She creates an accessible diva, who in this version of the musical is as comfortable knocking back a beer as she is sipping champagne. Cochran, who sings the well-known "Send in the Clowns," is ideal. In a masterfully orchestrated performance, she conveys Desiree's every emotion, often with little more than a slant of her eyes, the purse of her lips or a slight shrug of her shoulders. These subtle but significant details speak volumes, and would likely be lost in a larger venue.
Desiree is an accomplished actress of a certain age whose constant touring keeps her away from her wise-beyond-her-years teenage daughter Fredrika (the ingenuous Shannon Corey, a Barrington High School junior in her professional debut). Fredrika lives with Desiree's mother, Madame Armfeldt (the approachably imperial Dunagan), a wise former courtesan.
After a lifetime in the theater, Desiree has grown weary of the road and is looking to settle down, perhaps with her former lover, Fredrik Egerman (fine work by Weir). Unfortunately, Fredrik recently married his child-bride Anne (the endearing, golden-voiced Kristen French) -- not yet 18 and still a virgin 11 months after their nuptials -- in the hope of "renewing his unrenewable youth."
Desiree's other option is her jealous lover, the blustering Count Carl-Magnus (Brandon Dahlquist) -- an unrealistic choice married to the long-suffering Countess Charlotte (a wry, purposeful performance from the fantastic Tiffany Scott, who maintains the dignity of this wounded character). She tolerates the count's infidelities in exchange for his intermittent attention.
Also caught up in these romantic misadventures is Fredrik's teenage son Henrik (Royen Kent). A sexually repressed seminarian smitten with his stepmother, Henrik seeks solace with Petra (a smart, sensual Brianna Boyer), the family's astute and accommodating maid. After a disappointing tryst with Henrik, Petra finds satisfaction in the arms of Armfeldt family servant Frid (J. Michael Finley, another exceptional singer in a supporting role) during an amorous, illuminating weekend the characters spend at the Armfeldt's country estate.
Brown's staging is graceful and unfussy, rather like Kevin Depinet's nearly bare set consisting of lacy, cream-colored panels flanked by green velvet drapes and the occasional furniture piece. Also deserving mention are Rachel Anne Healy's attractive period costumes, with the jewel-toned gowns making a particular impression.
Everything about Writers' production feels fresh and inviting, like a sublime spring day after a long winter.