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.

Director Janis Valdes has staged Levin's script with intelligence and taste. Even within the limited space of the Jewish Community Center's studio theater, though, Patti Walley's set is almost too simple, only skimpily reflecting the text'scontinued on next pagecontinued from previous pagedescription of the mahogany splendors of the old synagogue. But this is a minor distraction among the many pleasures of Cantorial.

-- Bob Wilcox

WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY DANCE THEATRE
Washington University Performing Arts Department

Clothed in a gleaming dress -- close-fitted to the hips, then opening into a full skirt -- the young woman who takes the first solo in a dance suite made from Jose Limon's "A Dance Offering" enters the midst of five more women costumed similarly but in different colors. Her free, open movements (arms away from the trunk, head held high, lots of bounding) seem like conventional modern-dance expressions of joy. Her companions, however, move with eccentric steps -- joyful still, but suggestive here of a limp, there of hobbling. It is obviously Limon's choreography: The six dancers on the stage never crowd one another. When they are all doing the same step, one admires the discipline and the simultaneity of careful rehearsal, marvels at the way the often strange steps (sometimes graceless, even ugly) become absolutely the only possible corporeal reaction to Bach's "Musical Offering," the basis of the dance, as they make visible the subtlety of Bach's dissonances in the midst of an harmonic whole.

When 14 dancers appear to close the suite, the choreography seems to expand the Edison Theatre stage so much that the 14, dancing in two groups of four and two of three, have their own palpable spaces. When they intersect, it's like racing sailboats -- the whole is made up of discrete parts, yet has a unity that all the discrete motion only enhances.

An anonymous donor arranged with the Jose Limon Dance Foundation for the right to perform the choreography and for a Limon-trained director, Pamala Jones-Malave, to stage the work. But great choreography and professional direction must have dancers capable of performing the work. Wash U.'s dance students were prepared to undertake the work, and their success with it is a credit to their teachers and their university. These same teachers made the other five pieces performed last weekend, and they range from the cheerful jazz dancing of Mary-Jean Cowell's "Primal Axis" and Christine O'Neal's "Mood ... and Another Mood" to another O'Neal piece, "The Glass Company," an unlikely but elegant combination of Philip Glass and toe shoes. Two extended abstractions -- David Marchant's spiritual, even prayerful "Nos in Unum," which closed the evening's first half, and Robin Wilson's wide-ranging, scarily cheerful "treemountainriver," which closed the second -- were further proof that the dancers had become comfortable with success.

I am generally uncomfortable with dance set to liturgical music, but Marchant did more than simply respect the Gregorian chant and polyphony as music; he responded to the words of worship in the text. The dancers -- five women and one man, clad in handsome, flowing, heavy sea-green silk trousers and tunics -- seemed powerful but controlled as the nun in contemplation that Wordsworth compares to a flag stretched taut in the wind. Henry Claude, Sherry Olander and Adam Rugo performed Wilson's "treemountainriver," with music by Wilson herself and Stephen Rush. The 13 dancers, however, made plenty of musical noise themselves, not only by clicking rocks together but by chanting and even whooping. The dance itself was fast and unrelenting, athletic -- action, in other words, instead of contemplation.

Bonnie Kruger was responsible for the superb costuming; Rick Kuykendall's lighting made the dancing even more vivid and impressive. Washington University's Dance Theatre performance was everywhere surprising, highly entertaining and admirable -- both dancers and dance pedagogues presenting themselves in a most becoming light.

-- Harry Weber

THE PHILADELPHIA STORY
By Phillip Barry
Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Webster University

When Phillip Barry argues the case for the value of his upper-class characters, he's tediously unconvincing. When he just lets them live -- gracefully, graciously, intelligently, wittily -- they need no more justification than does a butterfly or a rose.

The Webster University Conservatory's production of Barry's The Philadelphia Story advances Barry's case brilliantly. Scott C. Neale's handsome, ingenious sets give director James Saba playing areas that he uses shrewdly to sort out the play's shifting alliances. Sylvia Burton's costumes show us 1939's fashions at their most attractive, graced by Kyle D. Weidner's lights.

Saba's student cast plays Barry's high comedy as if to the manner born. Self-possessed Susan E. Scott's Tracy Lord erases all thoughts of Katharine Hepburn. Among the men in her life, Ashley Green is properly smug as Tracy's big-businessman fiance. Matt McGaughey, playing a tough-skinned, soft-hearted journalist, takes a while to find the right tone -- a tone that Angela Davis, as his partner, hits immediately -- and Matt Huffman takes even longer to bring out the confident charm of Tracy's once and future husband. John Daniel Kinnaird as droll Uncle Willie and Angela Marie Smith, utterly convincing as Tracy's mother, impress with their playing of older people. In these hands, The Philadelphia Story once again charms and delights.

-- Bob Wilcox

THE NUTCRACKER
Music by P.I. Tchaikovsky
Ballet Conservatory Company, in conjunction with the St. Louis Art Museum

The Ballet Conservatory Company's production of The Nutcracker in the St. Louis Art Museum auditorium is lots of fun. Colorful and well-costumed, its charming adaptations of the Petipa choreography allow young dancers a place in the spotlight and young audiences a sense of the ballet's festive splendor.

But just because the dancers are young does not mean they're unskilled. Mara Sexton-Steele, dancing the part of the Sugar Plum Fairy the night I visited the production, and her Cavalier, Tom Baltrushunas, did a long pas de deux full of technical accomplishment and surprise.

The corps de ballet was particularly effective in the Snow Scene, dark and sparkling at the same time. And Lauren Stromberg was particularly sprightly as the Rose in the Waltz of the Flowers.

-- Harry Weber

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