Spinning Tree romances Sondheim with A Little Night Music  

click to enlarge Final_Dress_Charlotte.jpg

Photo by Manon Halliburton

It can be tough to stay optimistic about young theater companies. When the lifespan of a theater is less than five years, investing in one emotionally can feel as risky as embarking on a new relationship.

So heed this bold proclamation from a commitment-phobe: Spinning Tree Theatre is going to make it.

The theater's third season ends on a high note with its production of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music, a refreshingly clear-eyed romantic musical inspired by Ingmar Bergman's film Smiles of a Summer Night.

It's Sweden, circa 1900, and three couples are engaged in a waltz of infidelities. Fredrik Egerman finds superficial comforts in his trophy wife, Anne, a flighty young virgin less than half his age, but he still carries a torch for touring actress Desiree Armfeldt. Desiree prefers a rotating cast of lovers and feels trapped in a dalliance with jealous dragoon Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm. The count's wife, Charlotte Malcolm, resents her humiliating attachment to an unfaithful husband.

The setup is hardly novel — unsteady stasis giving way to the expected quarrels and complications — but the music is unmistakably Sondheim, a convergence of intricate rhythms and modulating melodies that command attention.

Director Michael Grayman elevates a formidable cast to new heights with a few smart adjustments, such as shaving the five-person chorus to four. It's the right call for this space, where subtlety and intimacy help emotions cut deep. And each performer makes a sizable impression.

Molly Denninghoff brings infectious, youthful energy to Anne, delighting in silly pursuits and simple pleasures. As Fredrik, Charles Fugate masters Sondheim's compound meters and wandering lines, wringing crisp humor from each tongue twister in songs such as "Now."

Melinda MacDonald portrays the aging Desiree with confidence, and her husky lower register has a resonance in which we can splash around. Her talent is on full display in an expressive "Send in the Clowns," a cabaret mainstay that she makes her own.

Lauren Braton is exceptional as the caustic Charlotte, who relies on wry humor to mask her wounds. Braton has some of the show's sharpest comic timing, but she's also a rich mezzo whose range powers the stirring "Every Day a Little Death." Vigthor Zophoniasson is imposing as Count Malcolm, and Liz Golson lends her strong voice and keen edge to Petra, a maid who attempts to seduce Fredrik's brooding son, Henrik (played by Daniel Beeman).

The orchestra, directed by Angie Benson, buoys Spinning Tree's skilled performers. Kaytee Dietrich and Andy Johnson, on reeds and French horn, respectively, are especially sure-footed with Sondheim's punishing score.

Act 2 veers at times into overly familiar romantic farce, but the musical's book, by Hugh Wheeler, is laced with enough self-referential jabs and social critique to temper the plot's most obvious conveniences. That's part of A Little Night Music's charm. The turnstile romances might feel artificial, but the characters never do — their emotions are as affecting as they are authentic, capturing the bittersweet ache of finding the right person at the wrong time.

It's smart about aging, too, with multiple lyrics lampooning youth's inconstancies and indiscretions. But Sondheim and Wheeler complicate that theme by fitting the play's final wisdom to the mouth of its youngest character. Desiree's daughter, Fredrika (played with age-defying pragmatism and poise by Allison Banks), finds herself bewildered by the amorous antics of the adults around her. "It must be worth it," she concludes.

It is. Spinning Tree's production is nearly unerring. The only weak point is incidental but not a one-time matter. The occasional ear-splitting death knell of a lav mic is a problem I've noticed at other productions at Off Center Theatre. Sound designers, get on that. Audiences, get on that, too. Lav mics are expensive, and this critic would like to see Spinning Tree stick around.

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