Spirits in the Night

A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC
By Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler
Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' steely and sublime production of A Little Night Music is the perfect antidote to the glycogen overdose caused by most holiday entertainment. Here is a fine and wise musical that can truly be called, in the best sense, "adult." In a manner that is elegant, sophisticated and engaging, the foibles and follies of love and sex -- particularly sex -- are played out before us in a complicated parlor game that never fails to enliven, amuse and even after several viewings, surprise. Although A Little Night Music has never entered the pantheon of the most popular musical-theater titles -- Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady, etc. -- as we approach the end of the century, it seems clear that it will take its place as one of the best.

The Rep's production begins with director Victoria Bussert making the smartest of wise choices -- she trusts the material. Blessed with several sublime performances and scenic designer John Ezell's elegant production, Bussert lets Sondheim's amazing words and music bring the audience into the heart of the production. To be a part of an audience at this show is simply amazing, if only because the caliber of listening is rarely this intense or inspired. As each subtle piece of wordplay or elegant quatrain passes through us, Night Music builds compelling force, until the nearly flawless second act reveals itself to be the height of theatrical calculation. (Not to mention construction. Notice how the second act moves the plot forward through a simple song/comment methodology, yet is always full and moving.) Throughout, Bussert trusts Sondheim, trusts Wheeler, and gently guides her winning cast through their often exhaustive paces.

The evening boasts several vital performances. Although the material doesn't allow Thom Sesma to gloriously explode as he did in last year's Sweeney Todd, or Miss Saigon the year before, he is a total charmer as the middle-aged Fredrik Egerman, a man whose waning charm is barely exceeded by his burgeoning wisdom. As the Countess Charlotte Malcolm, Donna English offers the evening's most brazen and fabulous turn. English launches out the best of Hugh Wheeler's bitter, bitter one-liners, but she does so with a self-knowing mockery that is hilarious and sad. Her performance is perfection. As Desiree Armfeldt, the actress for whom life's stages seem to hold less and less interest, Alison Bevan underplays the part, which adds a lovely softness and vulnerability to the production. Bevan gets the show's only "hit" song, "Send in the Clowns." Bathed in Peter Sargent's moody hues, it is a moment that stands with unquestionable purity. As the flustered Henrik, Rich Affannato makes sexual anticipation an art form. Watch how Affannato and Garrett Long, a delightful gibbering Anne, steal away for a tender and erotic slow dance during the dinner scene. Erin Hill tears into one of the most difficult songs in the Sondheim canon, "The Miller's Son" with unabashed glee in sexual salvation. She's a striking marvel. Only Scott Brush, as the braggart Count Carl-Magnus, seemed adrift during the evening. Brush's large gesturing and uneven vocal work seemed to diminish Carl-Magnus' presence.

Scenic designer Ezell washes the stage in blues that support the stillness of the summer night. His chief achievement, however -- and it is one worth getting to the Rep early just to study -- is the backdrop that explains this mysterious and powerful show in a way words cannot. At various times with Sargent's striking lighting, this drop becomes a forest, a lake and a moody, starlit night. Its shifting hues and colors only reinforce the delicacy and intimacy that this show so sublimely creates and celebrates. A Little Night Music is a rare treat, and the Rep's production captures almost all its glories. Isn't it rich, indeed.

-- Mike Isaacson

CANTORIAL
By Ira Levin
The New Jewish Theatre

Neither his hyper-convoluted Deathtrap nor his devilish Rosemary's Baby prepared me for the honest sweetness of Ira Levin's Cantorial. Like Rosemary's Baby, the play does hang on a supernatural element. Warren and Lesley, Manhattan yuppies, have bought an old synagogue on the Lower East Side. The place had already been fashionably rehabbed by a pair of their gay friends. But when Warren and Lesley move in, they begin to hear a voice singing to them in Hebrew. It's the ghost of the congregation's first cantor, now a half-century dead, asking them to restore the place to its original sacred use. Here, however, Levin doesn't exploit the supernatural for thrills and chills. Rather, it becomes the stimulus for Warren, bored with his success as a commodities broker, to search for a more fulfilling use for his life. Convinced that he must be at least part Jewish, Warren scours junkyards and tears out walls to satisfy both the ghostly voice and his own hunger for meaning and identity.

At the New Jewish Theatre, Doug Shelton exposes with utter conviction the depths of Warren's growing obsession. Roxanne Vafi conveys both Lesley's love for Warren and the impossibility of living with this thing that has gripped him. Barry Hyatt makes the Yiddish-inflected shopkeeper from across the street, one of the last surviving members of the old congregation, not just a funny old guy -- though Hyatt's timing is impeccable -- but a warm, fully rounded person who's responsible for much of the production's unsentimental appeal. Mack Harrell shapes with care his brief turn as Warren's father, a self-involved politician. And the rich voice of Cantor Leon Lissek swells with the glorious sounds of an ancient tradition.

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