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Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

A Little Night Music
South Bay Musical Theatre
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's review of People Where They Are

Michael Rhone, Jennifer Cuevas, and Cast
Photo by Dave Lepori
In a rich, reverberating blend of harmonies, an elaborately attired quintet sings snippets of fuller songs soon to come of the on-again, off-again love affairs and marriages we are about to witness:

"Unpack the luggage, la la la; pack the luggage, la la la." ... Bring up the curtain, la la la; bring down the curtain, la la la. ... Hi-ho, hi-ho, the glamorous life."

Having set the stage and now moving aside to assume their roles of a Greek-like chorus, the Quintet watches with evident interest as lushly bedecked couples clearly of the upper class as well as their coupled, properly attired house servants enter, all now waltzing also in circles, with partners moving from one coupling to the next. South Bay Musical Theatre is currently presenting a beautifully conceived and performed A Little Night Music (Stephen Sondheim, music and lyrics; Hugh Wheeler, book) with its intertwining stories of love sought, lost, remembered, found for the first time, and found again after long absence.

Love comes and goes in all shapes and forms among the characters of every age and class in these swirling tales set in the early 1900s of Sweden. There is love at first sight, aborted love, illegitimate and adulterous love, secret trysts, and publicly known affairs. Love strikes upstairs and downstairs among this cast of aristocrats and their servants. The old remember past loves with nostalgia and some regret; the middle-aged try desperately and foolishly to thwart aging and recreate the lust of earlier years; the youth either puzzle their way through first attractions or jump at the immediate chance for sex-driven satisfaction.

The gossipy nature of all this love in the air is underlined by members of the Quintet periodically appearing with knowing looks at the current goings-on and with sensuous playfulness among themselves. With their exceptional, individual voices and their ability as a group to blend gloriously, this Quintet comments in song and helps connect the various scenes. Paul Rose-Teter, Kama Belloni, David Mister, Elyse Cook, and Lucy Nino (an impressive stand-in for the regularly performing Mariel Temesi) excel in both solo and various combinations of the ensemble.

The Quintet's musical abilities are emblematic of the entire cast of twenty-three. To a person, they deliver memorable moments with clarity and brilliance in keeping with their individual characters when alone in the musical spotlight. In combination with each other–whether in carefully blended duets; counterpoint trios; or fully harmonized, stage-filling ensemble pieces–Sondheim's bullet-fast lyrics and his tricky rhythms and keys are performed with universal ease.

As the wheelchaired grande dame Madame Armfeldt, one of the Bay Area's most prolific and respected actors, Judith Miller, delivers many of the show's best comic lines in an authoritative, but amused-at-life manner. Half-speaking, half-singing, her oft-wavering, smoky voice reminisces her many past "Liaisons" with royalty as she provides wise (sometimes bawdy) love advice to her young granddaughter Fredrika (Elle Levkovich).

With brilliant clarity and an ability to skip seamlessly through Sondheim's challenging scale hops, Julien Gussman is Anne, the late-teen bride of the middle-aged widower Fredrik. Anne is often silly, quick both to tears and tee-hees (often inappropriately); but in the case of this Anne–while her vocals are outstanding–there is too often, too much overacting to the point of distraction.

Anne's life of luxury becomes complicated when she confesses to her friend Charlotte that her husband Fredrik has eyes of lust directed toward an old flame. Together they deliver "Every Day a Little Death" that speaks to everyone who has ever felt cheated in love. As the wife of the philandering Carl-Magnus, Dana Cordelia Morgan's Charlotte asserts with wonderfully sung cynicism, "Men are stupid; men are vain; love's disgusting; love's insane."

The men of whom they sing are themselves an eclectic collection that run a gamut that can only be described as some combination of confused, cheating, and/or clownish in their attempts at love. As Fredrik, Michael Rhone brings punchy assertiveness to the bullet-speed, rhyming lyrics of "Now," as with his attractive voice he describes his frustration in having married a girl (Anne) who once sat on his lap and called him "Uncle" and who–eleven months after their marriage–is still a virgin.

Fredrik's twenty-year-old son Henrik is devoutly loyal to his cello and his Bible until the aspiring priest touches the breasts or lips of a household maid or looks with puppy eyes at his father's young bride. With solid, selling vocals and an ability to burst vibrantly into tenor heights, Ryan Liu sings "Later," as his Henrik wonders, "How can I wait around for later?"

The third in this trio of love-seeking men who each look the wrong direction before making the right, final choice is the officious dragoon, Carl Magnus, who is making life for his wife Charlotte miserable as he openly burns the candle at both ends. His rather disgusting view of women ("a functional but ornamental race") is sung with noteworthy power as if delivering an operatic aria as Nick Mandracchia delivers this philanderer's warped view of women in a song ("In Praise of Women")–a song that more than once hints broadly of its kinship to Sondheim's "Pretty Women" from Sweeney Todd.

The focus of both the infidelity of Fredrik and of Carl Magnus is Madame Armfeldt's daughter and Fredrika's mother, Desiree. The once toast of Swedish stage now tours the countryside playing Ibsen while also having an affair with Charlotte's vacuous, overly macho husband. She has also managed now to have a dressing room tryst with Fredrik, her ex-lover and the now-husband of teenage Anne. Jennifer Cuevas's Desiree ably threads the needle of the men vying for her. With spirited smirk and rolled eyes, she responds to Fredrik's "You Must Meet My Wife;" and in one of Walter M. Mayes' best-directed scenes (among many), she sings a beautifully interpreted "Send In the Clowns" to a listening Fredrik.

Well-deserved applause goes to Alea Selburn whose saucy, snappy, sexy maid, Petra, scores the showstopping number of the evening. She delivers "The Miller's Son" with exciting, exploding precision, never failing to amaze as she conquers Sondheim's lyrics. To this tale of imagined marriages and trysts, she deliciously employs nuanced shifts of sung styles and moods as Petra concludes, "...a girl has to celebrate what passes by."

The early turn of twentieth-century Sweden is brought to life through the colorful, plush, meticulously detailed costumes designed by Kathleen O'Brien. Projections by Don Nguyen stunningly establish internal and external settings and add humor to numbers like Mrs. Armfeldt's "Liaisons" as huge, framed portraits of each of her conquers appears on the wall of her mansion. Ed Hunter's lighting choices often become dream-like as couples waltz in ever-changing circles and couplings (Francesca Cipponeri, choreographer), all the while dancing to an admirably played score by the 15-person orchestra under the direction of Ruiran Xun.

Congratulations to all involved in this ambitious, most ably produced and performed A Little Night Music by South Bay Musical Theatre. A day later, the scenes and songs still waltz through my satisfied memory bank.

A Little Night Music, a production of South Bay Musical Theatre, runs through February 17, 2024, at the Saratoga Civic Theater, 13777 Fruitvale Avenue, Saratoga CA. For tickets and information, please visit or call 408-266-4374.