A weekend in the country is exactly what you’re in for if you head up to the Damascus Theatre Company’s production of A Little Night Music at the Gaithersburg Arts Barn this month. The Sondheim classic is being revised to have a more modern feel with D. Scott Richards and Musical Director Keith Tittermary at the helm. Will the romantic entanglements of the well-known period musical still shine through, well the only way to find out is to go and see it for yourself.
Having no set or costume design to speak of, except for Bill Brown’s ingenious use of the accordion chair, the play depends solely on the actors’ abilities to sing, dance, and tell the story of these characters. Brown’s brilliant notion of having a single piece of multi-purpose furniture (and it truly is one of the most incredible pieces of furniture I think I’ve ever seen on or off the stage) really allows for a myriad of scenes to unfold in this otherwise minimalist setup.
Musical Director Keith Tittermary does a relatively impressive job working the complex rhythms and intricately woven convoluted harmonies that are an elemental signature in any Sondheim musical into this production in a successful fashion. Tittermary’s biggest success in the show is the quintet: the show’s five strongest vocalists coming together in rousing harmonies that really showcase the depths of emotion in just the score alone in this Sondheim piece. There are other moments, though sparing, throughout the production where the harmonies are not as clear and do not work as well, but overall Tittermary achieves a great deal of success with this difficult musical.
Director D. Scott Richards’ approach to modernizing the musical is ineffective. Stating that the musical is no longer relatable to modern audiences in his director’s note, Richards’ concept of bringing the modern audience a step closer to these characters, and their lives, is incomplete. While the actors are no longer wearing the period piece costumes there is a lack of general theme or cohesive idea to tie their modern look together. The setting falls to the wayside with characters still keeping all their original titles, mannerisms, and speech patterns, and what gets left behind is a group of performers outfitted somewhere from the late 90’s to the present day with nothing solid in the minimalist/modern design choices to bring them together.
Richards’ use of the quintet—while they are vocally superb and incredibly emotionally connected to the music that they sing—is also confusing and creates a layer of separation that pushes the audience further away from these characters. It feels like Richards’ is creating a secondary play within a play; having the members of the quintet guide the main play characters into place, and tap them out of freeze frame once a scene is finished. His purpose in doing this is unclear, and as an overall framework to the show it detracts from the quintet’s main purpose of being a ‘guiding chorus’ of sorts.
The quintet, despite their misdirection, have the best voices in the production and delivered every number they sang flawlessly. Consisting of Bill Brown, Cheryl J. Campo, Daniel Fleming, Dru Harwood, and Sarah Sylvia Johnson, their voices are lyrical perfection that carries these Sondheim songs as if they were written for them. Both “Night Waltz I” and “Night Waltz II” are perfect examples of their ability to create vocal beauty while infusing passionate emotion into the song. Brown and Harwood are often featured in duet snippets of the quintet’s number, having a subtle but lovely chemistry between them, especially during “Remember?” and both of their voices are sensational; ringing out as solid and vivacious sounds throughout the production.
While many of the principle players in the production were not strong singers, the acting was executed with style; emotions were packed into each delivery and this carried the musical forward with a great deal of excitement. The Count (Rich Shegogue) and his Countess (Jenni McGinnis) were two stunning performers that really crafted sharply focused characters in this show. McGinnis, though giving a convincing rendition of “Every Day a Little Death,” should be commended for her sassy and sarcastic delivery as Countess Charlotte. The zingers and sharply witted humors zipped out of her mouth with flare. Shegogue gives an equally impressive and thoroughly developed character with his rendition of the jealous count.
Really crafting a character that put the audience on edge was Alexa Soriano, playing the ingénue Anne. Constantly in hysterics, be they of elation or of dreadful woe, every move Soriano made, every breath she drew was played to the peak of melodramatic. While at times this approach bordered on unbearably obnoxious, it was perfect for the way the character is written into the show, and was an effective choice, as well as one that was delivered with total commitment.
Petra (Kristina Friedgen) gives the best well-rounded performance in the production. A vocal knockout for her number “The Miller’s Son,” she has a fierce command of her vocal range, presenting an enigmatic yet majestic sound that begins subdued and jaded in jazz, rolling quickly into a blast of something exhilarating. Her saucy and salacious approach to the character makes her wild and fantastic to watch. Friedgen easily delivers the most compelling number in the show with this solo and is sensational as an actress.
The most moving number of the performance comes from Desiree (Liz Weber). Her rendition of “Send in the Clowns” sheds the unabashed flare and zest that her character has shrouded herself in up until this point, revealing a vulnerable and delicate woman filled with love, longing, and a life of disappointment. Weber creates such a dynamic versatility between this point in the show and where her character has previously come from that there is no better word for it than stunning. With a keen grip on how to imbue moments of humor into her character’s existence, and how to properly balance experience with interest, and sensuality with tenderness, Weber delivers a rendition of this character that would make Sondheim proud.
There are several good reasons to enjoy this production even if conceptually it is not everyone’s cup of tea. Damascus Theatre Company will open your eyes, and give you a new way to look at Sondheim, giving you the opportunity to discover some of the subtler nuances built into this show.
Running Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission.
A Little Night Music plays through February 23, 2014 at Damascus Theatre Company at the Gaithersburg Arts Barn — 311 Kent Square Road in Gaithersburg, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (301) 258-6394, or purchase them online.