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A Little Night Music
Mu Performing Arts, St. Paul


Sheena Janson and Randy Reyes
No one can accuse Mu Performing Arts of being predictable. In their 22 years, this modestly-sized theater and music performance organization has provided both traditional and contemporary windows into the diverse span of the Asian-American community. But never have they done so by way of Sweden; that is, until their current production of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's A Little Night Music. Under the assured direction of Rick Shiomi, Mu's founder and former Artistic Director, the excursion provides a highly satisfying evening, capturing both the merriment and poignancy in this work.

A Little Night Music was preceded by two Sondheim musicals that explored the complexities of personal relationships and commitments through a jaundiced lens: Company (1971) and Follies (1972). In 1973, Sondheim, with book writer Hugh Wheeler, approached the subject with a lighter touch. Drawing from the film Smiles of a Summer Night, a rare comedy from Ingmar Bergman set in turn of the century Sweden, Wheeler crafted a highly literate and witty book, to match Sondheim's crisp, elegant triple-time score. They tell a tale of partners who make excuses for their current choices, romanticize their pasts, and conspire to change their futures.

The opening introduces us to Fredrik Egerman, a widowed lawyer entering middle age; his son Henrik, a seminary student whose morose cello playing and stern morality provide a stopper on tightly bottled passions and desires; and Anne Egerman, Fredrik's 18-year-old bride of eleven months, whose sunny and playful disposition covers up her fear of performing her "wifely duty," much to the patient Fredrik's dismay. Each presents his or her emotional state and desires in song: "Now" for Fredrik, "Later" for Henrik, and "Soon" for Anne, with the three becoming entwined with beautiful urgency.

In short order, we meet Desiree Armfeldt, an actress of fading glamour with whom Fredrik has a passionate past; Desiree's world-weary mother and precocious daughter; and Desiree's current lover, the dim-witted and quick-tempered Count Carl-Magnus, and his long-long suffering wife, Countess Charlotte. Carl-Magnus enlists Charlotte in a ploy to sabotage the liaison between Fredrik and Desiree, while Desiree conspires with her mother to invite Fredrik and his family to their country estate, hoping to make a play for a second chance with her long-lost love. Act one culminates in the joyfully expectant "Weekend in the County," as the full company expresses their hopes and fears for what lies ahead.

Act two opens with the ensemble's observation that "The Sun Won't Set," as the Scandinavian solstice shines with unyielding daylight. After a riotous dinner the characters, driven by their own desires and visions of reality, stumble through a failed suicide, an inept round of Russian roulette, rejected propositions and other misadventures until—voila!—the unsetting sun shines upon rearranged and renewed pairings, finally in the shape of what was always meant to be.

Unlike the resigned acceptance of flawed realities depicted in Company and Follies, in A Little Night Music, Sondheim casts an optimistic light on commitment and relationships. The denizens of Night Music's summer evening regroup and recover their losses, finding deeper happiness than they had known at the start. In the bargain, they come to know and accept themselves as well.

Strong performances are required to make real these characters' transformations. Mu's cast rises to the occasion. Most noteworthy, Sheena Janson's Desiree is sharp, witty and alluring, yet in the end makes us believe in a depth of feeling that we would have thought impossible when we first encounter her. Her delivery of "Send in the Clowns" is spot on.

Mu's newly appointed Artistic Director Randy Ryes matches her as Fredrik, a man with solid sense and a decent heart who finds himself held hostage by his fears of aging. Reyes skillfully portrays the perplexity felt by a man who doesn't believe he is asking too much of life. When he insists to Desiree that "You Must Meet My Wife" he reveals the growing dissonance between the life he has and the life he wants.

Suzie Juul's Anne is all school-girl pep and gushing frivolity, until she too recognizes what she has been afraid to see within her heart. As the smoldering Henrik, Wes Mouri blusters and burns until he can no longer contain the passion within. Alex Galick portraying the mindless machismo of Carl Magnus, and Meghan Kreidler as the self-loathing but crafty Charlotte are well matched. Alice McGlave, as lusty lady's maid Petra and Danielle Wong as the bubbly Fredrika do fine work. The ensemble adds vocal depth that brings out the layers in Sondheim's beautiful score.

Only Lara Trujillo's Madame Armfeldt misses the mark. One is always aware of her efforts to be a seen-it-all, had-it all woman of the world, in a voice that seems to be looking for punchlines rather than portraying a woman who sees her way of life ending. Still, Trujillo nails the character's signature song, "Liaisons," her cynical credo that practicality, not sentiment, ought to govern affairs of the heart.

While Wheeler and Sondheim imbed great humor in these romantic fumbles and fumings, there is also a depth of longing and regret. Sondheim's score has many aching moments. In "Send in the Clowns," no doubt Sondheim's best known and loved song, Desiree at last sees that Fredrik can give her a life with roots and substance, away from the shallow treadmill of her life in the theater; Fredrik still clings to the helium lift of Anne's adoration, despite her continued virginal status, as a stave against his encroaching age. When Desiree sings "Are we a pair? Me with my feet on the ground, you in mid-air," we feel the heartbreak of two people right for one another, yet not in the right time or place to come together. Fortunately, their sun has not yet set.

A Little Night Music has never been a dance musical. Though Sondheim's score includes many waltzes, there is little opportunity for the characters to transform their feelings into leaps or sweeps. Penelope Freeh's modest choreography adds little to the otherwise buoyant tone of the production. A six-piece band led by music director Jason Hansen plays the score beautifully.

The physical production is exceedingly simple. A couple of Japanese-style trees and platforms (the only nod to Mu's focus on Asian-American experience), along with an open playing space and the addition of minimal furnishings, form the various locales. Lynne Farrington's period costumes are lovely, bringing our mind's eye back to Europe circa 1900.

In his role as Mu's Artistic Director, Reyes has written that the intent of this production of A Little Night Music is to give Asian-American actors in the Twin Cities an opportunity to grow as artists, and to have audiences see Asian men and women in roles that do not fit old stereotypes. Accomplished. Beyond that, it presents a fully formed production of a wise and witty musical with gorgeous music, and a delightfully offered moral: that if we shed pride and vanity, and see the world with clear eyes, we might find a path to happiness. Not a bad accomplishment for a summer's night.

A Little Night Music runs through August 10, 2014, at the Park Square Theatre, 20 W. Seventh Place, Saint Paul, MN 55102. For ticket and performance information, please call the Park Square Box Office: 651-291-7005; Toll Free: 877-291-7001; or visit www.muperformingarts.org.


Photo: Michal Daniel


- Arthur Dorman



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