Saturday, October 25, 2014
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Review: 'A Little Night Music'

The Arden Theatre first staged Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music in 1995 at the Arts Bank on Broad and South Streets. Two decades on, they've upstaged the musical with a gorgeously designed, magnificently presented production that, as a capstone to the Arden's 25th season, revels in its success.

Review: 'A Little Night Music'

By Jim Rutter
FOR THE INQUIRER

The Arden Theatre first staged Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music in 1995 at the Arts Bank on Broad and South Streets. Two decades on, they've upstaged the musical with a gorgeously designed, magnificently presented production that, as a capstone to the Arden's 25th season, revels in its success.

Hugh Wheeler's book (inspired by Ingmar Bergman's 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night) depicts the intermingled romantic follies of three couples: mid-40s lawyer Fredrik Egerman (Christopher Patrick Mullen) and his 18-year-old still-virgin bride, Anne (Patti-Lee Meringo), who teases her husband's seminary-student son, Henrik (Joe Hogan), even as he flirts with the maid, Petra (Alex Keiper), while his dad tries to rekindle a romance with actress Desiree (Grace Gonglewski), herself stoking the dying fires of an affair with Count Carl-Magnus (Ben Dibble), as his marriage to Countess Charlotte (Karen Peakes) falters.

That's a lot to keep straight across the cast of 15 mostly local actors, but director Terry Nolen's smooth staging perfectly integrates their layered storylines. Strong singing from Dibble, Hogan, Meringo, and Keiper excites in solos, duets, and trios, and in "Weekend in the Country," the rousing ensemble number that closes Act One.

But despite Eric Ebbenga's bubbly rendering of the waltz-driven score, Nolen's direction doesn't let us get away with merely enjoying the frivolity of this musical through song. He emphasizes the dark, near-cynical humor of the lyrics, accentuated particularly by Peakes' depressive Countess and Sally Mercer's nihilistic Madame Armfeldt, Desiree's mother. Their performances shine through scenes of clever banter and youthful anguish, while the adults give free rein to petty jealousy and tyrannical vanity, those bastard children of affection.

Regret and remorse rear in reminiscences sung by a quintet of lieder singers; whenever they appear, Thom Weaver's lighting shades them like ghosts as the rest of the cast stops still in profile, suggesting a turn away from true emotion, to which the conclusion's comeuppance offers a bittersweet reprieve. A series of receding sunsets enlivens costumer Rosemarie McKelvey's sumptuous feathered hats and ornamented dresses.

The production sails by like a dream, a thin gauze that blinds our eyes, first to consequence, later to regret, but which, in the splendor of this staging, lets in the promise of a summer smile that redeems us.


Through June 30 at the Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2d St. Tickets: $36 to $48. 215-922-1122, or ardentheatre.org.

About this blog
Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer. She also is a contributing writer for Variety and American Theatre magazine. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of four books about four playwrights (Rabe, McNally, Miller, Albee), and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). Her 'weekend' job as a travel writer provides adventure: dogsledding in the Yukon, ziplining in Belize, walking coast-to-coast across England, and cowboying in the Australian Outback.


Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.


Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.


Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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