Friday, August 20, 2010

"A Little Night Music" Finishes Its Weekend in the Country

When I last saw "A Little Night Music," the charming and captivating musical based on the Swedish film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” I was in New York and Desirée Armfeldt, the one who gets to sing “Send in the Clowns,” was being played by international film star Catherine Zeta-Jones. I say “being played” with more meaning than one. Ms. Zeta-Jones was flinty and tough and not at all right for Desirée (see my review here) but she somehow managed to make enough of an impact on (or completely bamboozle) the Tony Awards voters to nab an award for the role. Did she deserve it? Not in the least. What did they see that I didn’t? I have no idea.

In any event, this time, deep in the wilds of Wisconsin at a theater called Peninsula Players, a veteran Chicago actress named Carmen Roman played the enchanting Desirée. She couldn’t be more different from the glamorous Catherine Zeta-Jones if she tried, and “A Little Night Music” was all the better for it. Neither one is your typical Desirée, if there is such a thing, but Roman, who is tall and thin and not a drop-dead beauty like Zeta-Jones, made me believe that she was an actress touring in the provinces, that she had once loved and lost Fredrik Egerman, and that she did indeed rue the mess that her life had become. Instead of the softer, curvier Glynis Johns/Jean Simmons/Elizabeth Taylor type, Roman reminded me more of the mature Audrey Hepburn, with a wry wisdom that worked very well for Desirée.

I love Stephen Sondheim’s score and Hugh Wheeler’s book for “A Little Night Music,” where at least three mismatched pairs twirl onto the stage, waltzing through a series of misadventures caused by their own poor choices, eventually twirling off again with better results. There’s Desirée, who wants to rescue her old love Fredrik from his immature wife, Anne, and also dump her current lover, Count Carl-Magnus, a dragoon and a buffoon. Carl-Magnus treats his wife Charlotte terribly, while Anne continues to rebuff her husband’s efforts to consummate their marriage, even as she teases her stepson, gloomy Henrik, who is closer to her own age. Toss in Desirée’s daughter Fredrika (you can guess where she gets her name), Desirée’s mother, the formidable Madame Armfeldt, and frisky servant girl Petra, plus a quintet of singers who stroll into view every so often with cynical observations about the nature of love and memory and a sun that never sets, and you have the full tableau.

This is not a neat or tidy show, but the lush score and romantic darkness around the edges makes it a sardonic, intoxicating experience nonetheless. For Peninsula Players, located near Fish Creek in Door County, Wisconsin, Artistic Director Greg Vinkler directed “A Little Night Music” in a sort of straight-ahead, no-nonsense manner. He was aided by a terrific cast, featuring wonderful voices for the most part, as well as strong acting skills and good comic timing.

Along with Carmen Roman’s lovely Desirée, James Rank showed off a gorgeous singing voice, even if he was also the best-looking and least stuffy Fredrik I’ve seen, and Sean Fortunato sounded great and found all the right comedic moments as puffed-up soldier Carl-Magnus. I also enjoyed Jessie Mueller’s take on Anne, who has a tendency to come off like a simpering (and annoying) ninny. Here, Mueller made her young and a bit giddy, but also appealing and understandable. That’s no easy feat.

The masterful Peggy Roeder created a delicious Madame Armfeldt, the one with a past full of “Liaisons” who explains that the night will be smiling three times; Cassie Wooley’s servant girl Petra was jolly and robust, a little different from most but actually better this way; Karen Jane Woditsch’s acerbic Charlotte was right on target; and Andrew Keltz made for a somewhat sloppy but sweet Henrik.

All five of the Liebeslieders (Neil Friedman, Harmony France, Kathleen Gibson, Ian Toohill and McKinley Carter) had excellent voices and made an impact as a cynical counterpoint to the main action. I have to admit, I don’t usually notice the Liebeslieders, but they were quite present and quite good in this production.

I also enjoyed the sparkling white turn-of-the-century costumes created by Karin Simonson Kopischke, although Carl-Magnus could’ve looked more military and Desirée could’ve looked less bridal when they got to the country.

Among the musical numbers, “Now/Later/Soon” and “You Must Meet My Wife” stood out in the first half, with “It Would Have Been Wonderful,” a snarly sort of duet between the two rivals, Fredrick and Carl-Magnus, coming to life beautifully in Act II.

All in all, seeing “A Little Night Music” against a backdrop of birch trees and towering pines was a pleasure. Peninsula Players can be proud of pulling off a complicated, delicate show with good humor, amazing music and just enough romance to tug at the heartstrings long after the elusive sun has finally set. I worry about Anne and Henrik and how they're going to survive, I don't think Charlotte gets a very happy ending, and I already miss Madame Armfeldt, but still... A pleasure.


  1. Sounds wonderful! Yay, Peggy Roeder!! Now I want to play Desiree. Someday very soon, or I will need to play Madame Armfeldt.

  2. I would love to see you as Desiree. A perfect match! And your mother as Madame Armfeldt.