Deanna Dunagan in A Little Night Music
(© Michael Brosilow)
Deanna Dunagan in A Little Night Music
(© Michael Brosilow)
To see Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's classic musical A Little Night Music fully costumed and staged in a theater of 104 seats, sung and played without amplification, is the lap of luxury -- if done well.

At Chicago's Writers' Theatre, it's being done particularly well, with a brilliant five-piece orchestra (piano/celeste, cello, violin, harp, woodwinds) under Valerie Maze's baton and an 11-person cast featuring Tony Award winner Deanna Dunagan as Madame Armfeldt.

As for the "fully costumed" part -- everyone spends extended time in turn-of-the-20th Century underwear except aging Madame Armfeldt and her young granddaughter, Frederika (Shannon Coery). They all eventually put on elegant period clothing (especially the women; costume designer Rachel Anny Healy cuts a few corners with the men), but the conceit is director William Brown's shortcut to the show's libidinous aspects.

What Brown does best is to make this Night Music the funniest version I've ever seen without compromising the work's style and literary integrity. Moreover, the intimacy of the production allows every verbal thrust and every raised eyebrow to be enjoyed, such as actress Desiree Armfeldt's (Shannon Cochran) reaction when middle-aged lawyer Fredrick Egerman (calmly befuddled Jonathan Weir) says that his new wife, Anne (the lovely Kristen French), is only 18. Cochran's subtle triple-take is worth the price of admission.

The show is slow catching fire through "Now/Later/Soon," the first three, interlocked expository songs for Egerman, his serious theology-student son, Henrik (Royan Kent, who plays his own cello), and the virginal Anne, but it hits its stride by the middle of Act I and never looks back.

Indeed, the show is rollicking from the moment Desiree and Frederick engage in their barbed duet "You Must Meet My Wife," right up to the more profound sentiments of Desiree's "Send in the Clowns" and the saucy "The Miller's Son," sung by serving girl Petra (the voluptuous Brianna Borger) towards the end of Act II.

The strapping Brandon Dahlquist as the vain, pea-brained Count Malcolm and Tiffany Scott, who nails every barb as his long-suffering wife Countess Malcolm, complete the flawless cast.

In A Little Night Music, the women are the victims (and the heroes), the men are the fools, and you will have a fine time observing them all.