Let me say at the outset that “A Little Night Music” is not among my favorite musicals. Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot to admire in this enduring piece by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and Hugh Wheeler (book). Much of the humor is trenchant, thanks to Sondheim’s wit and Wheeler’s sharp-tongued dialogue, and the music is airy and seductive. This is the show that gave us the covered-to-death “Send in the Clowns,” which in the context of the show is a moving lament that still works its will on an audience. But the inherent silliness of the implausible romantic relationships in a musical based on “Smiles of a Summer Night,” Ingmar Bergman’s comic film from the 1950s, has always been a tough sell. It’s best to turn off the logical part of your brain and just go with it. The show basically applies an elegant patina to elements of a classic sex farce and resolves its complicated relationships on a mid-summer evening on a Swedish estate, circa 1900.
Spinning Tree Theatre’s production captures most of the inherent strengths in the material. Directed by Michael Grayman and choreographed by Andrew Parkhurst, the show brings together some of the most formidable musical-theater talents in Kansas City. The anchors are Melinda MacDonald as the fading actress Desiree Armfeldt and Charles Fugate as Fredrik Egerman, a lawyer and one of Desiree’s many former lovers who now finds himself in a sexless marriage with a bride young enough to be his daughter. In addition to being a terrific singer, MacDonald is a smart, charismatic performer who is too rarely asked to demonstrate her acting chops. She makes the most of the opportunity. Fugate, meanwhile, delivers a sly, nuanced performance as Fredrik, whose foolish choices could easily earn our contempt. In Fugate’s hands, Fredrik becomes inherently sympathetic. Staged with sumptuous costumes designed by Aaron Chvatal and minimal scenery at the Off Center Theatre, the show seems too big for the intimate space at times. But that intimacy is one of the key elements in the production’s success. It’s easy to surrender to the actors’ talents and invest in these characters emotionally. The production brings together four of the finest singing actresses in town. In addition to MacDonald, whose reading of “Send in the Clowns” is a somber show-stopper, superior comic performances are registered by Molly Denninghoff as Anne, Fredrik’s virginal bride; Lauren Braton as Countess Charlotte Malcolm, whose husband is Desiree’s current lover; and Liz Golson as Petra, a libidinous servant. Braton, particularly, has a field day with the embittered Charlotte’s dry sarcasm.
Daniel Beeman, who plays Fredrik’s son Henrik, a seminary student hopelessly in love with his stepmother, delivers a performance that seems forced in the early going but acquires credibility and emotional resonance as the show progresses. Vigthor Zophoniasson, who possesses the best voice among the men, is memorable as the hot-headed Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm. Cathy Wood commands the stage with her nicely executed performance as Madame Armfeldt, Desiree’s aging mother, whose poignant relationship with her granddaughter generates the truest sentiment in this show. As Fredrika, the granddaughter, young Allison Banks demonstrates obvious talent and impressive poise. Filling out the chorus and playing minor roles are Devon Barnes, Sarah Morrisey, Zachary Parker and Bob Wearing, all of whom demonstrate strong voices.
The lighting design by Jeff Peltz makes a big contribution to this atmospheric show. The small orchestra, led by conductor and pianist Angie Benson, was highly effective on opening night as long as it stayed in tune. There were times, unfortunately, when it didn’t. Onstage
“A Little Night Music” runs through May 24 at the Off Center Theatre at Crown Center. For more information, call 816-569-5277 or go to SpinningTreeTheatre.com.