Whipped cream, knives and 'Night Music'

Circle has a fling with Sondheim

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By Doug Deuchler

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Lately musicals seem determined to never appear too smart or too eloquent. Not willing to alienate the lucrative tourist trade, Broadway has recently recycled a seemingly endless slew of old movies, TV shows and even comic books in musical form. That's why it's a special joy to experience Circle Theatre's new production of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music.

This is no rocking bubblegum show. Circle's revival of the bittersweet, haunting 1973 classic sports a stunning, waltz-infused score with wickedly clever lyrics. The sophisticated subject matter focuses on a magical midsummer mixture of sex, death and memory. This beautifully staged production features many veteran Circle favorites, plus some stellar newcomers.

Director Bob Knuth keeps the moonstruck musical's many plot threads flowing swiftly.

With its constant refrain of "Remember, darling," Sondheim's wistful adult fairytale, set in turn-of-the-20th-century Sweden, is enchanting and darkly alluring.

Anita Hoffman plays Desiree, a flirtatious, free-wheeling, yet vulnerable actress-of-a-certain-age, now touring the Swedish countryside in a French farce. She's a hardened old trouper yet she's likable. Desiree's ravishing days are now behind her, and she's tiring of life on the circuit. Desiree is happy to reconnect with her former lover — a lawyer, now trapped in a sexless marriage to a child-like bride.

Much of the plot revolves around the gradual coming back together of Desiree and Fredrik.

Hoffman's tender rendition of "Send in the Clowns," the musical centerpiece of the show, conveys a touching sense of loss and regret. (The song, originally written for non-singer Glynis Johns, is possibly Sondheim's most well-known break-out hit; it has been sung by everyone from Sinatra to Streisand over the years.)

Kirk Swenk plays suave, middle-aged lawyer Fredrik Eggerman, Desiree's ex-lover, now again a suitor. Swenk conveys the perfect mix of charm and melancholy.

Patti Roeder, looking like a cross between Kitty Carlisle and a geisha gorgon, is wonderful as the world-weary Madame Armfeldt, a dowager who numbers kings and dukes among her high-profile paramours. She now sits, owlishly overseeing it all, confined to a wheelchair. She reminisces about her long ago romantic exploits when sex "was a pleasurable means to a measurable end." As a much sought-after concubine, she recalls, "I acquired some position, plus a tiny Titian." The haughty old lady grows progressively more frail and addled as the show progresses.

Roeder, incidentally, just received a Jeff nomination for her performance in another show with another theater troupe.

Fredrik's naïve, 18-year-old, still virgin childwife, Anne, is played by Stephanie Stockstill.

Patrick Tierney is Fredrik's morose, sexually repressed Lutheran seminarian son Henrik, who secretly lusts after his youthful stepmother. Sad-eyed Henrik is gloomy and confused, yet Tierney manages to provide touches of humor.

Jeremy Hill is terrific as jealous Count Carl-Magus Malcolm, a swaggering, dim-witted dragoon who's lately been having an affair with Desiree.

The Countess, his vengeful, cruelly ignored wife, is played by Deanna Boyd, who provides biting, self-deprecating wit.

Khaki Pixley is frisky Petra, an insatiable maid. After a tryst with the butler, she explodes with a saucy celebration of the pleasures of sex, "The Miller's Son." (It's a high point, but I will never understand why this number's placed, like a mood-deflating road-bump, at the show's 11 o'clock hour.)

Desiree's innocent teenage love-child daughter Fredrika is Alicia Hurtado. Frid, Madame Armfeldt's well-built, towering manservant, is Greg Zawada.

The chorus is particularly strong, providing full robust sound and support. The challenging vocal score is full of intricate harmonies and counterpoints.

A Little Night Music is one of the few Sondheim shows to become a giant hit. I was fortunate enough to see it on Broadway in 1973 with Glynis Johns as Desiree and the legendary Hermione Gingold as Madame Armfeldt. Whoever played Fredrik long ago vanished from my memory, but the memory of the musical still brings a smile.

And in fact, the musical was drawn from the 1955 Ingmar Bergman film, Smiles of a Summer Night.

Director Knuth also designed the minimalist but effective drawing room set. The walls and furniture are stark white. Elizabeth Powell Wislar Shaffer's sumptuous early 1900s costumes provide plenty of color and elegance.

Choreography is by Kevin Bellie. Josh Walker is musical director. Peter J. Storms' sound design provides clarity and perspective. There's a new sound system, I understand, purchased in part with a grant from The Saints.

Karl Kontour is the stage manager.

The musicians are Josh Walker, Tom Walta, Ralph Wilder, Brian Patti, Dave Orlicz, and Don Mattison.

Though lovers and suitors are constantly chasing each other around the estate, there's a silvery sadness that pervades the show. Mind you, that's not a bad thing. Sondheim once characterized this show as "whipped cream and knives." Both elements seem well balanced in this glistening Circle production.

"Isn't it rich? Isn't it bliss?" one song inquires.

Yes, indeed it is.

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