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A Lot of Night Music

A summer night smiled on Filichia and others who enjoyed A Little Night Music under the stars at the Ravinia Festival.

Isn't it rich? Are they a pair?
George Hearn and Patti LuPone in A Little Night Music
(Photo: Jim Steere/Ravinia Festival)
I had a liaison with A Little Night Music at the Ravinia International Festival of the Arts last Saturday night. Ever been there? The handsome spot in Highland Park, Illinois is not unlike Tanglewood in the Berkshires or Wolftrap in Virginia, for it too has a covered "pavilion" where patrons can sit, see, and enjoy. Then, behind and around it, is a generous lawn on which others can sit, picnic, and listen. For those of you who were on that lawn and couldn't see what was happening on stage -- or for those of you who weren't there at all -- I'll happily fill you in.

To say that Sondheim and Wheeler's wonderful 1973 musical about mismatched lovers got a concert treatment would not really be accurate. All the actors were off-book, totally blocked, and in costume. Indeed, the only thing missing from this genuine production was a set. (The Ravinia did spring for four panels sporting birch trees to represent the country in which our principals would spend a weekend, and hundreds of light-bulb stars that emerged at the end of the sparkling evening.)

For director Lonny Price, leads Patti LuPone and George Hearn, and cast member Hollis Resnik, it was another weekend in the country, for the four did Sweeney Todd in concert here (and other places) last summer. As he did with Sweeney, Price had raised platforms placed in the middle of the orchestra so that the cast could have two levels on which to work.

Hearn, taking another Len Cariou role, had a better voice for it, both in the sense that his singing was more mellifluous and in that he could be understood more easily (especially on that tricky "and/or" bit in "Now"). His Fredrik Egerman had the sad wisdom of experience when dealing with his son Henrik, and showed a patience that bespoke love when dealing with his difficult wife. As Anne, Johanna McKenzie Miller displayed the confidence of a pretty girl who has made a quick adjustment to mistress of the house. On the other hand, she was too knowing for the role of this virgin, but this opera-trained singer does have the voice of an angel -- and, given that so many of those assembled at Ravinia couldn't see her but could only hear her, Price was wise to cast her.

The role of Desirée would seem to demand someone who natively has class and elegance. That doesn't make it a natural for LuPone, who has often played prostitutes (Les Misérables, Working, The Cradle Will Rock) or women who were damned close to it (Evita) -- not to mention a country girl in The Baker's Wife and Annie Get Your Gun, a second-rate low-comic in Noises Off, and a low-class murderess in Sweeney Todd. Yet LuPone gave it her all and achieved more than we might have expected, reminding us that Desirée is, after all, an actress who plays places like Rottvik and is, when all is said and done, the daughter of a glorified whore. So when Hearn's Fredrick told her his dilemma of having a virgin for a wife, there was a let's-get-down-to-brass-tacks quality in the way LuPone flatly stated, "And so you came to me." Her Desiree knew she had the upper hand here -- but then she melted, in a surprisingly touching display, because she genuinely loved the man.

Night musicians Samantha Anne Meron and Zoe Caldwell
(Photo: Jim Steere/Ravinia Festival)
In "You Must Meet My Wife," LuPone didn't offer a pseudo-apology on "Sorry, Anne" but said it as a correction, much as Judi Dench did in London a few years ago. And she took more umbrage than all the Desirées I've seen (8) on "How monstrous!" But it all worked, and "You Must Meet My Wife" got my favorite type of applause -- the type that starts strong, then eventually begins to abate until the audience realizes that it hasn't really shown the true level of its appreciation, and applauds even louder and stronger than it did originally. (By the way, in that song, Price eliminated the joke of Desirée's wanting a match lit for her cigarette when she interrupted Fredrick's discourse with "Light?" He just had her say it as if she anticipated what he was going to say -- suggesting that they were one of those rare couples who could, as the cliché goes, finish each other's sentences. Nice.)

Marc Kudisch, as Desirée's lover Carl-Magnus, was indeed everything that his wife Charlotte said he was: "A louse, a bastard, a conceited, puffed-up adulterous egomaniac." He had the right clenched teeth reactions to the breakdown of both his car and his relationship, and augmented all of that with a cock-of-the-walk walk. A bonus: At the end of "In Praise of Women," Kudisch ferociously kicked up the pants he'd just taken off, and caught them in the air.

For both Kudisch and Hearn, Price found a delicious bit of staging that was solely indigenous to the concert format. In the scene where Fredrick must hide from Carl-Magnus, Price wittily had Hearn displace conductor Grant Gershon and pretend to be him until the moment came when Fredrik decided to unmask (and unseat) himself. The audience adored the ruse, as well they should have. As Charlotte, Hollis Resnik had enough acid to fill a used-car lot's worth of DieHard batteries. John McVeigh's Henrik captured an eager earnestness. And Samantha Anne Meron -- a mere high school junior -- gave Fredrika both a youthful charm and yet a worldliness befitting a kid who has done some touring with her mother.

By the time Charlotte said, "Oh, I am enjoying myself," everyone else had long before come to the same conclusion. A Little Night Music boasts a glorious Sondheim score, of course; but, thanks to Hugh Wheeler, it also has one of the best books in the canon. It doesn't take long for the second act to build on the momentum of the first as the Frid-Petra-Henrik triangle collides with the Henrik-Anne-Fredrick triangle, which smashes into the Fredrick-Desirée-Carl-Magnus triangle -- not to mention the Desirée-Carl-Magnus-Charlotte triangle. Hearn was wonderfully sincere in the pre-"Send in the Clowns" speech, and LuPone got cheers and bravas with her intelligent rendition of the Sondheim standard. Sara Ramirez's Petra caused virtually the same amount of commotion when she socked home "The Miller's Son."

Sara Ramirez singing "The Miller's Son"
(Photo: Jim Steere/Ravinia Festival)
But the best part of the evening is that we got a brand-new musical theater star in Zoe Caldwell, who was a more-than-memorable Madame Leonora Armfeldt. Bedecked with an astonishing number of large jewels on her fingers, she had a secure wisdom and a definitive nod when she told of what the three smiles of a summer night mean. And, oh, does this lady know how to wait for a laugh! What great timing she showed after she said to Fredrika, "Don't squeeze your bosoms against the chair, dear," waiting for every laugh to subside before she went on with: "It'll stunt their growth." Then came another perfectly timed pause before she added in that lower-register boom of a voice: "And then where will you be?"

Late in the evening, Caldwell's Mmme. Armfeld harrumphed about the lover who dared to give her something so cheap as "a wooden ring" before segueing most convincingly into a wistful, "He might have been the love of my life." It was astonishingly real. Truth to tell, she was occasionally unsure of her lines and lyrics; but if the long-rumored Broadway revival of A Little Night Music ever comes to pass, everything possible should be done to seduce Caldwell into reprising the role.

For that matter, Price should be re-engaged as director. As we left the theater, my buddy Ken Bloom said, "You know, people always mention this one and that one as one of the great new musical theater directors, but why don't they mention Lonny Price along with them?" It's a damned good question. His A Little Night Music made me smile many more than three times.


[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at [email protected]]


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