Book: Hugh Wheeler; Score: Stephen Sondheim. At: Writers' Theatre, 325 Tudor Ct., Glencoe
Tickets: 847-242-6000 or www.writerstheatre.org; $35-$70. Runs through: July 8
There is much to praise in Writers' Theatre's new production of A Little Night Music.
This award-winning 1973 Broadway musical by composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim and playwright Hugh Wheeler (adapted from Ingmar Bergman's 1950s film Smiles of a Summer Night) is a lush, romantic operetta about sex, love and the immutable march of time. Although many opera companies have previously tackled A Little Night Music on a grand scale, Writers' Theatre makes an overwhelming case why the show should be chamber-sized.
There's no need for microphones in Writers' Theatre's intimate space, which prompts all of the performers to sing and speak with welcome annunciated ardor. The audience's proximity also demands honest performances from the ensemble, and they certainly deliver.
It's a pleasure to be so close with such a wonderful cast, especially Deanna Dunagan and her regal turn as the aging former courtesan Madame Armfeldt. (This is the first time Dunagan has returned for a long Chicago-area run since originating her Tony Award-winning performance as Violet in Steppenwolf Theatre's August: Osage County in 2007.)
Shannon Cochran, a veteran of the tour of August: Osage County, plays the leading lady of Desiree Armfeldt with down-to-earth sensuality as her actress character calculates to replace one married lover, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (the comically hyper-butch Brandon Dahlquist), for the more compatible lawyer and former lover Frederik Egerman (a beautifully sung Jonathan Weir), who will make a good father for her illegitimate daughter Frederika (a solid Shannon Corey).
Of course, there are complications with Desiree's two suitors' wives, which include the still-a-virgin bride of Anne Egerman (the wonderfully girlish Kristen French) and the embittered Countess Charlotte (a wryly acidic turn by Tiffany Scott). There's even more sexual frustration with Frederik's seminary-trained older son, Henrik (Royen Kent, who has to fake his sung high notes), who secretly has his sights on his stepmother but will try and make do with the willing maid, Petra (an earthy Brianna Borger).
Director William Brown mostly solves the show's built-in difficulty of the quartet of Lieder singers by having the all the characters (including J. Michael Finley as the randy servant Frid and the gorgeous-voiced Cory Goodrich as Malia) double up on roles and deliver their own Greek chorus-style commentary sometimes from offstage.
Now there are a few quibbles here and there, ranging from Cochran's delivery of the immortal number "Send in the Clowns" (more pathos can be mined from the song and bittersweet situation), to the shaky cello playing of Kent in "Now, Later, Soon."
But otherwise Writers' Theatre's A Little Night Music is a dream come true. This kind of theatrical intimacy can make the audience feel extremely lucky to be in on all the action.