Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of The Italian Straw Hat
I admit to a bias, arriving at Theater Latté Da's mounting of A Little Night Music, as for decades it has been among my very favorite musicals. Thus, I was primed to heartily enjoy it, but also ready to pounce upon any shortcomings that would undermine the pleasures to be had. Happily, no such shortcomings can be found at the Ritz Theatre, Latté Da's northeast Minneapolis home. Director Peter Rothstein whips up as perfect a production of A Little Night Music as you are likely ever to find, light as a soufflé but with the substance of dark Swedish rye bread.
Sondheim composed the score for A Little Night Music almost entirely in ¾-time and variants, the rhythm of waltz and other formally elegant dances. Like dancers in a waltz, the story draws upon the passions and longings of its characters, but constrained by socially agreed upon rules. In early 20th century Sweden, middle-aged lawyer Fredrik Egerman has given up his status as a widower and taken a much younger second wife, Anne. In fact, Anne is so young that the thought of consummating her marriage terrifies her, and though a wife for eleven months, she remains a virgin. Living with Fredrik and Anne is Fredrik's son Henrik, a seminary student who struggles to repress what he believes to be sinful urges, especially in regard to his young step-mother. A lusty young housemaid, Petra, completes the Egerman household.
In the years between his first wife and Anne, Fredrik had a passionate affair with glamorous actress Desirée Armfeldt. When he surprises Anne with tickets to the theater, Anne is thrilled to be seeing the one and only Desirée Armfeldt, while for Fredrik the occasion stirs up speculations about what might have been and what might yet be. Desirée is delighted to see Fredrik, notwithstanding her current liaison with a boorish dragoon, Carl-Magnus, who callously prattles on about his famous mistress with his wife Charlotte. Throw into the stew Desirée's mother Madame Leonora Armfeldt, who has made a career of wealthy paramours (preferably bearing royal titles), her 13-year-old daughter Fredrika, and Madame's butler Frid.
Over the course of two passion-filled weekends, this cast of characters waltzes through the possibilities before them, leaving them all a bit wiser and immensely happier. All the while, Madame and Fredrika cast out commentaries about the goings onthe elder from her seasoned and cynical perch, the younger through the bloom of innocence and hope.
With over 75 productions under his directorial belt at Theater Latté Da alone, Peter Rothstein has repeatedly proven his talent for whipping together the elements of musical theater to produce sublime results. A Little Night Music is no exception, with actors, orchestra, design and staging all in perfect harmony. In the program notes Rothstein states that he has long wanted to do A Little Night Music, but had been waiting for the perfect cast: enter Sally Wingert as Desirée and Mark Benninghofen as Fredrik. Both have long, impressive track records on Twin Cities stages, but moreover, have so often played together, co-starring in recent years at Latté Da in Sweeney Todd and Six Degrees of Separation, and in Shooting Star at Park Square, that the affectionate reunion between Fredrik and Desirée could not feel more authentic. Their repartee in the spoke-sung "You Must Meet My Wife" is delicious.
Aside from their chemistry together, each offers considerable unique gifts to their roles. Benninghofen brings a sort of self-deprecating goofiness to Fredrik, making it possible to forgive his immense lapses in judgement and forays into sordid situations. He has a gruff voice that starts the show off with a dazzling presentation of the tongue-tripping "Now," expressing his hopes for Anne to succumb to his manly desires. Wingert's throaty voice conveys the allure of a great stage actress, and her comic timing is peerless. Wingert has us see Desirée's heart melting as she abandons play-acting to express her genuine feelings and needs, and delivers a heartrending "Send in the Clowns," the song that has taken on a life of its own thanks to Judy Collins and a raft of other cover versions, but is most poignant and meaningful on the lips of a properly crestfallen Desirée.
As Countess Charlotte and Count Carl-Magnus, Elizabeth Hawkinson and Rudolfo Nieto are a perfect pair, Hawkinson in soaring vocal form for "Every Day a Little Death" and persuasively capturing Charlotte's humiliation on the heels of her unyielding love for her husband. Nieto draws out the comic nature of the aggressively possessive, but rather dumb Count. Nieto has a booming voice that delivers on the Count's bluster "In Praise of Women" and "It Would Have Been Wonderful," in which his strident confidence faces off against Benninghofen's uncertain Fredrik. At the onset, Riley McNutt's Henrik feels a shade too overwrought by his repressed desires, but McNutt creates a full arc as his character gains force and finally speaks out against the hypocrisy he sees. As Anne, Grace Chermak is the picture of a child bride who loves the prettiness of marriage but is unready for its carnal element. She chimes in with a lovely soprano on "Soon," Anne's response to Fredrik's "Now," the two combining with Henrik's "Later" to create a wondrous opening scene for the show.
Madame Armfeldt must be detached but harbor strong views of the dalliances all around, brooking no sentimentality. Susan Hofflander is just marvelous in the role, delivering a bravura performance of "Liaisons," her eulogy to the lost art of being a well-kept woman. Britta Ollmann, who astonished in lead roles in Latté Da's Ragtime and Once, breathes joyous life into the smaller role of Petra, expressing her philosophy of life with soaring abandon in "The Miller's Son." Mabel Weisman is appropriately darling as Desirée's young daughter, and Bradley Greenwald provides brisk brio as Frid. The entire cast blends together with jubilant, perfectly harmonized voice to close the first act with "A Weekend in the Country."
As the show begins, the stage is draped with a gauzy white lace curtain, through which cast members can be seen singing, humming, and waltzing to the overture. When the curtain rises, the orchestra (playing beautifully throughout, led by music director Jason Hansen) can be seen at the rear through a similar lacy white drape, with the effect of making it somewhat dream-like, but also intricate and comprising many detailed knots. These, along with birch trees rising from floor to ceiling and efficiently rearranged chairs, divans, and dressing tables, form Joel Sass's stunning set. Rich Hamson's costume designs, all in shades of white, are flat-out gorgeous, while Marcus Hilliard's lighting design creates the soft tones of remembrance and longing, especially capturing the half-darkness of a Scandinavian midsummer night.
With nothing but praise for this production, A Little Night Music remains unscathed in my upper tier of musical theater's very best, a shining example of the potential for this art from to be highly entertaining, insightful, stirring, and truly beautiful. I would happily go back and see it again and again. That is true musical theater joy, and that is what A Little Night Music delivers.
A Little Night Music, through March 10, 2019, at the Theater Latté Da, Ritz Theater, 345 13th Avenue NE, Minneapolis MN. Tickets are $34.00 - $51.00. Student and Educator Rush tickets, $15.00, cash only, maximum of two tickets per valid ID one hour before curtain, pending availability. For tickets and information, call 612-339-3303 or visit latteda.org.
Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim; Book: Hugh Wheeler, suggested by the motion picture Smiles of a Summer Night by Ingmar Bergman; Orchestrations: Jonathan Tunick; Director: Peter Rothstein; Choreography: Kelli Foster Warder; Music Director: Jason Hansen; Scenic Design: Joel Sass; Costume Design: Rich Hamson; Lighting Design: Marcus Hilliard; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Hair and Wig Design (Paul Bigot); Properties Master: Abbee Warmboe; Stage Manager: Tiffany K. Orr; Technical Director: Bethany Reinfeld; Assistant Director: Sara Ochs; Assistant Stage Manager: Amanda K. Bowman; Assistant Costume Designer: Dakota Blankenship; Assistant Lighting Designer: Smaida Mara Rizzotto.
Cast: Mark Benninghofen (Frederick Egerman), Grace Chermak (Anne Egerman), Bradley Greenwald (Frid), Elizabeth Hawkinson (Countess Charlotte Malcom), Susan Hofflander (Madame Leonora Armfeldt), Riley McNutt (Henrik Egerman), Rudolfo Nieto (Count Carl-Magnus Malcom), Britta Ollmann (Petra), Mabel Weisman (Fredrika Armfeldt), Sally Wingert (Desirée Armfeldt)