By Quinn Rigg
Love is as much a fleeting chance as it is a long-standing commitment. It is a feeling strong enough to free mind, just as it possesses the strength to bind the heart; though many things, love is certainly divisive, if often contradictory to itself in nature.
BoHo Theatre intends to ruminate upon the foolish fulfillment of the heart’s desire with its delightfully devised production of A Little Night Music.
Inspired by the Ingmar Bergman film, Smiles of a Summer Night, A Little Night Music is a musical farce with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book Hugh Wheeler, detailing the complicated and infidelitous relationships of a lawyer, Fredrik Egerman, his new virgin wife, Anna;, his former lover, Desiree; and Desiree’s jealous (unfaithful) suitor, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm. A synopsis of the elaborate plot may be found here.
BoHo artistic director Peter Marston Sullivan writes, “With A Little Night Music, we delve into the complicated, funny, and heartbreaking pillar of ‘love.’ A Little Night Music has all sorts of love: secretive, unrequited, passionate, emotionless, sexual and sexless….” To this end, Sullivan’s analysis is very apt, yet it ignores the lie of love that so prevalently pulses at the core of this musical. There is a large difference between love and possession—between affection and objectification—and this musical inherently does a very poor job of distinguishing this dichotomy.
It is clear that any relationship regarding the musical’s “antagonist,” the pompous and brutal Count Carl-Magnus, pertains not to love, but to ownership, and in regards to the musical’s “protagonist,” Fredrik Egerman, it is less “love” and more nostalgia. Carl-Magnus seeks to conquer women, and Egerman uses them to relive the dead fantasies of his past. There is a toxic and problematic standard of relationships here, as the women’s needs are only heeded at the convenience of their infidelitous male counterparts. The pains of said abuse and emotional hurt are expounded on with honesty and transparency in “Every Day a Little Death” and “Send in the Clowns,” yet despite their pain, there is hardly any retribution—no punishment for the selfishness of the male gaze.
Of course, the problematic aspects of the material are outside of this production’s control, and BoHo’s A Little Night Music does its best to vibrantly embellish this world of infidelitous frivolity with a top-tier production crew, a star-studded cast and a benign reverence for the human heart—and all of its follies.
Gorgeous staging by Director Linda Fortunato expands the intimate space of the Greenhouse Theater through movement and energy. The movement of bodies is never constricted, and patrons are engrossed in the peculiar world of this musical through organic, dramatically-motivated choices. In particular, the choice to have the four-piece orchestra perform in the middle of the stage is both inventive and incredibly effective. Led with poise and expertise by music director Tom Vendafreddo, violinist Sarah Kim, cellist Magdalena Sustere and woodwind player Mike Matlock give physically engaged performances befitting of a concert hall. The compelling synthesis of physical and harmonic landscapes provides immense opportunity, as actors interact with their orchestra as extensions of the environment.
Additional intrigue with the direction is derived from the choice to bend the sexuality of the Egerman’s promiscuous maid, Petra—the liberation of her sexuality in turn liberates the idea of love from the dogmatic commitment (and careless breakage of said commitment) that makes the men of this musical frustrating. Not only is her love free of commitment and expectation, it is free of social shackles, making it accessible to its audience and to the truth.
The Greek chorus of the Quintet is adeptly utilized to energize transitions and inform the dramatic stakes of the piece. What’s more, the facial and musical subtleties of the Quintet are entirely captivating—each member is an impressive performer in their own right, but together, they become an unstoppable ensemble. The sonorous blend that Nicole Besa, Rachel Klippel, Emily Goldberg, Lazaro Estrada and Ross Matsuda share is very befitting of Sondheim’s musically lavish and lyrically robust score.
Christopher Davis as the Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm is a looming, booming baritenor born to play the role, and his brutish and thoughtfully ignorant affectations are a consistently maddening and hilarious. His vocal prowess is particularly conducive to the prestige and stature of such a character. He is well contrasted and supported by the deliciously sardonic Stephanie Stockstill as Countess Charlotte Malcolm, whose deadpan delivery and effortless comedic timing is sure to bring the house down.
The inimitable Kelli Harrington shines as Desiree Armfeldt, giving a master class in performance through sheerly devastating tact, timing, and grace. From her cunning, organic choices, and the clear, detailed attention she provides to her scene partners, Harrington is without flaw. And, in the opinion of this reviewer, Harrington gives the definitive rendition of “Send in the Clowns.” Harrington’s presence on stage and her portrayal of this role is nothing short of brilliant.
Such a well-equipped cast is further supported by an impeccable behind-the-scenes production crew. Simple yet specific scenic design from Evan Frank is remarkably detailed and incredibly convincing in terms of suggesting location and articulating atmosphere. G. “Max” Maxin IV carefully crafts the landscape of light with the facility of a master painter; his lighting design is dynamic and organic, deftly mixing his palette of light to match the needs of the scene. Costume design by Christina Leinicke is befitting of royalty, and the detailed flourishes on each body describe character with immersive accuracy.
While problematic in fundamental content, there is no denying that BoHo’s production of A Little Night Music does its best to approach the sensitive subjects of insatiable longing and spousal distrust with tact and verisimilitude. Fortunato’s direction does well to qualify that while problematic and messy, this musical still contains very real reflections of love—as well as the pain entailed therein. BoHo’s production does well to subvert the misogynistic tendencies typical of a Sondheim musical, delineating the chaotic complexities of love and its lies through intent listening, warm gaiety and a touch of cynicism that equates to thematic clarity.
For a night of revelry, reminiscence and farcical high-class chaos performed with professional polish and grandeur, look no further than BoHo’s inventive and candid A Little Night Music.
BoHo Theatre’s presents “A Little Night Music” through July 8th at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Liz Lauren.