Review: Village Theatre Guild’s A Little Night Music

Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Book: Hugh Wheeler
Location: Village Theatre Guild
Director: Craig Gustafson
Music Director: Douglas Orlyk

I am not going to lie, this was one production that I was looking forward to all year. Take that a step further… I was even more excited when the cast list first came out… to the point that I was jumping up and down in excitement and glee because it included several heavy hitters in the theatre community (Steve Schroeder, Pam Turlow, Susan O’Byrne, Randall Knott), relative novices (Teresa Reinalda), favorites (Heather Miller, Patty Yuen, Justin Triezenberg) and everyone else in between.

This blend of talents made for a very beautiful, well-crafted production of A Little Night Music that should be lasting longer than the original one month run.

First let us start with the director: Craig Gustafson. He has been known throughout the community to helm some very strong productions over the years… most recently Assassins at the Geneva Underground Playhouse and the Broadway Ballot at Wheaton Drama. This production of A Little Night Music is not just the exception to the rule… but the standard (for black box theatre productions).

With a strong production team that includes Douglas Orlyk as Musical Director and RJ Ogren as Set Designer… Craig masterfully directs this timeless production from the large stage into a small black box theatre with sitting only available for just short of sixty people per show. At first glance, one could only wonder at how a stage production such as A Little Night Music could fit into such a small venue… however it only takes about five minutes into the production to marvel at how effortlessly the cast and production team were able to put such a production up in an very efficient and effective manner.

A feat of engineering as I would call it… unlike myself I do not believe any one of them are engineers! How could I not be impressed? 😉

The set (as conceived by RJ Ogren) was gorgeous as we have come to almost expect out of him, but not just that it was also very functional. At the far ends of either side are platforms for various scenes that do not require much movement or interaction and the center stage area is set aside for the majority of the larger scenes. One platform however is designated for the various bedroom scenes one finds in A Little Night Music (take that as you will) while the other blends from moments of Madam Armfeldt with her granddaughter Fredricka to moments that members of the quintet have to themselves between scene changes.

Anyway… enough about the production team… what about the cast? Before I start talking about the cast… let’s find out who they are:

Desiree Armfeldt Pam Turlow
Fredrik Egerman Mark Mavetz
Anne Egerman Teresa J Arnold
Henrik Egerman Justin Triezenberg
Petra Heather Miller
Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm Randall W Knott
Charlotte Malcolm Karen Bronson
Fredrika Armfeldt Brynn Frantz
Madame Armfeldt Teresa Reinalda
Frid Peter Lemongelli
Mrs Anderssen Patty Yuen
Mr Erlanson Stan Austin
Mr Lindquist Steve Schroeder
Mrs Nordstrom Becky Messerschmidt
Mrs Segstrom Susan O’Byrne

But where do I begin with the cast?

I mean there was such an abundance of talent that to pick out highlights would seemingly demean the talent of the remainder of the cast. Then again, if I were to mention every single person within the cast this post would end up being far longer than most people would have the patience to read… decisions, decisions.

The quintet, in my humble opinion, probably has the most difficult role of the cast. I consider these five individuals to be a cohesive unit because they are rarely without at least one other within the five and they flow in and out of scenes with relative ease that one does not always realize just how necessary they are until they are no longer there. In this case the quintet is effortlessly portrayed by Patty Yuen, Stan Austin, Steve Schroeder, Becky Messerschmidt and Susan O’Byrne. With a quintet as strong as their weakest link, the men really shined immensely in this group of five… Steve’s voice is absolutely exquisite to the point that I really wouldn’t mind listening to him sing the phone book to me (but then again I might be just a tad biased). Stan is the perfect balance and counterpoint to Steve and together they provide one of the stronger foundations to the quintet as a whole.

Of the cast… one thing I found to be rather amusing is the possibility of family resemblance between the three Armfeldt women, despite the fact that none of them are actually related to one another in reality (well… not in the past few generations it would seem). Starting with the matriarch: Madame Armfeldt as played to perfection by Teresa Reinalda in what I understand to be only her second musical theatre production in recent memory (on stage that is… she has been seen working behind the scenes prior to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels). One of the things that really caught my attention was for someone so small she really commanded the stage and held on to the audience attention with no problem. There are very few people who I would consider as possessing amazing stage presence and for who can be considered a novice, she is one of them.

Teresa brings a spark and a spunk to a role that also requires a touch of elegance and elitist mentality that not only can you sympathize with her, but you do so to the point that you hate to see her move on with her life. But with a grand daughter like Fredrika (Brynn Frantz) that counter points her motives and actions during the “lessons” together… you start to realize just how much love and adoration grandmother has to her grand-daughter and ultimately her daughter: Desiree Armfeldt.

Pam Turlow… for me is well known for the comedic timing she brings to her roles, and she really milks them in her role. But when tasked with such an emotional role such as Desiree Armfeldt, you can’t help but know that magic is bound to happen. And happen it did. Pam brings such a vulnerability to Desiree that is palpable that not a dry eye should be left in the house after her torch song: Send in the Clowns. If Pam were to have an album of her favorites songs to date in print somewhere… I would be raising my hand high asking where could one purchase it. One thing I noticed about Pam’s acting is that she is not only acts with her voice, face, eyes… But with her body, soul… Just everything… When semi-seducing Fredrik her foot was slowly rubbing up and down his ankle… Up his pants leg… A gesture I doubt most people would notice but because she is that amazing of an actress you can’t help but be drawn to her and believe just how natural it all seemed.

As for the two men vying for her attention? Fredrik Egerman and Count Malcolm – as portrayed by Mark Mavetz and Randall Knott respectively – they couldn’t be more different as night and day despite having the same goal in mind… Well in the matter of speaking. Their respective talents are harness and brought to a head in the second act whilst singing “It Would Have Been Wonderful”. I really don’t know what to say except that these two did a fantastical job working with and against one another… If that makes sense.

No? Ah well… Moving on.

What about their wives? Teresa Arnold as Anne Egerman and Karen Bronson as Countess Charlotte Malcolm? Since Anne has some of the highest notes in the scores… it is too easy for anyone to sing that high and have it be too hard on the ears… what I remember most about Teresa’s interpretation of Anne is that even in the higher range her voice was so pure and clear that it doesn’t deter one from listening but rather pull you in more. Whileas with Karen and her interpretation of Charlotte… she balances the anger and frustration and pain that he character feels towards her husband with the love, yearning, and sense of lost that she still feels for him in what appears to be a loveless marriage. Karen’s ability to balance that and make it realistic was spot on… particularly when it came to the dinner party scene in the second act… then again with so much going on in some of the larger scenes (the dinner party in the second act for example) even though one can’t help but be drawn to the primary characters on stage… I, however, would myself watching the hired help as they fill in moments that if you blink you would miss them.

Petra as played by Heather Miller is the maid of the Egermans who was also having a bit of a fling (if you could call it that) with Henrik, and Frid as played by Peter Lemongelli Madame Armfeldt’s butler… Had a subtle chemistry that seemingly grew as act two progressed… And like I said, if you were not paying them any attention their frolic in the woods would seem out of place. Although Peter did not have all that many lines in the grand scheme of things (as Frid really he should have a song somewhere which Sondheim did write initially, but I digress) but the joy of him is how many little moments he has created for himself throughout the production. The one that stands out in my mind happens towards the beginning of act two… And although it happened out of necessity it was still comedic.

Heather Miller was the flirt… And in some ways the slut of the show (aka Petra)… But Heather plays her in such a way that you feel that Petra is really just trying to enjoy life in the best way she knows how… Especially considering her station in life. Whether it is teasing her employer’s son, or enjoying the company of the butler… Or even stealing a couple of other glances here and there of the other men in the cast… Heather made Petra look effortless in her love of life while understanding her station in life.

With the background music being predominantly keyboard with the occasional use of the cello (as played by Justin Triezenberg – Henrik) and violin (brought in by Patty Yuen)… This rather simplistic approach to this particular production works on so many levels. Although a necessity considering the space available, it also allows the actors voices to take front and center stage giving the audience a chance to really listen and appreciate Sondheim’s music in all its entirety.

However the biggest draw of this production? Hands down the comedy. Now I have seen the revival and several past productions of A Little Night Music on Broadway and never have I heard or seen lines delivered in such a way (and effortlessly) as to milk every comedic moment possible. There were far more laughs coming out of this particular production of A Little Night Music than I dare say all the Broadway versions combined… And that is a feat. With a director like Craig Gustafson and a especially talented cast like this one… Milking every single comedic moment appears to be the name of the game.

Case in point: During the scene where the Egermans are going to the theatre production that Desiree is a part of, the way that Susan O’Byrne and Patty Yuen were “acting” in the traveling troupe had me wanting to roll onto the floor in laughter… it was that funny. Never in all the productions of A Little Night Music that I have seen did this scene ever made me laugh anywhere near as hard as Susan and Patty did.

What this cast has done (for the most part) is pull the audience into their individual worlds and keeping their attention from start to finish. Far too often do I see some of these productions (especially if I happen to know members of the cast personally) and I do not see it as a story unfolding before my eyes but so and so playing such and such. Not so with A Little Night Music… The cast was so well ingrained into their individual roles that I no longer saw them as a cast member but as their character… And that is something you don’t often see in community theatre.

One of the more impressive aspects of this production of A Little Night Music is how silent the stage crew was when setting up the sets, working behind the scenes, hoisting the wheelchair (which has got to be heavier than its occupant). I mean seriously! Take a look backstage and see the obstacle course that is back there and figure out how the stage crew manages to move that contraption up and down a few stairs… when they needed men for the stage crew… they really needed men (particularly if they are of Rob Reinalda or Peter Lemongelli’s caliber)! Anyway… I digress. 😛

My only complaint? Even though the original run time of the show is indeed closer to three hours… When it came out that the running time was closer to two and a half hours I was shocked… Until I saw the production and realized why. Even though I enjoyed immensely the quality and caliber of this production and all those involved, there were moments that I felt were far too rushed. I might even go so far as to say that I felt like I had a case of whiplash once all was said and done. Not always a bad thing, but in some ways it did hinder me from enjoying the production in its entirety. Then again finding a balance between too long or too short is always an issue in any stage production professional or amateur.

Then again… With such a talented group of people working on and off stage is it really any wonder that the majority of the seats have been sold out? From last count there are only a couple dozen seats left for the last Thursday show in this run… And a pity because I am indeed very tempted to purchase a ticket to see the show once again before the run is over.

As for those of you that happen to read this and already have tickets reserved? It is highly suggested that you arrive thirty minutes before the show starts… because when my friend and I arrived approximately twenty minutes before the start of the show, the majority of the seats were already filled and we sat at a far back corner. So make sure you are there early and if you don’t have tickets… get them before you miss this gem of a show. That’s a promise.