Review: Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre’s A Little Night Music Is Timely at Any Time of Life

A Little Night Music makes so many incisive points about aging that it ought to come with a trigger warning—or better yet, be required viewing—for people over 50. And what about the under-50 crowd? Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s musical variation on Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night offers just as much to younger viewers, though its pitting of romantic attraction against the passage of time may not land quite as hard.

Set in Sweden around the turn of the 20th century, the story reaches well beyond its specific era and location. In Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre’s immersive space, director L. Walter Stearns and his design team (sets by Angela Weber Miller, costumes by Cindy Moon, props by Isa Noe) build A Little Night Music’s world with the barest period suggestions: motoring goggles, a wooden wheelchair, a laced-up corset. Once the waltz-fused score begins, the imagination can easily shift from Chicago’s Howard Street to a century ago and a continent away.

Chamaya Moody and J Alan. Photo by Elizabeth Stenholt.

Waltzing, that formal European construct which choreographer Brenda Didier handles with simplicity, entwines the fringe and center of society. On the fringe are three generations of Armfeldt women. Mme. Armfeldt (Honey West) has had a series of affairs with titled and wealthy men that left her a well-heeled old lady. Her daughter Desiree (Colette Todd) has hit middle age as an actress who gets star billing as she tours small provincial towns. Thirteen-year-old Fredrika (Tessa Newman), the product of one of Desiree’s relationships, stays with her grandmother while her mother is on the road. Though not especially satisfied, they’re a fairly stable trio.

It's those in the societal center who get the tumult going. Widower Fredrik (Patrick Byrnes), who years earlier had a torrid affair with Desiree, has married 18-year-old Anne (Chamaya Moody). But the exuberantly childlike Anne won’t consummate the union, even after Desiree comes to town and suspiciously makes eye contact with Fredrik from the stage. Henrik (J Alan), the son from Fredrik’s first marriage, pines desperately for Anne, however much he tries to bury himself in his studies for the ministry. Byrnes and Alan as father and son deliver performances of such heart and delicacy that it’s impossible not to feel their separate but equal torment.

In fine form, too, are Kevin Webb as Carl-Magnus, a military man openly involved with Desiree, and Maya Rowe, as his wife Charlotte. Married to a man so vain that he cannot fathom either woman doing anything but swoon for him, Rowe conveys a gut-wrenching level of misery. “Who could ever be happy to meet me?” she asks, a stew of rage and low self-esteem. Here again, it’s impossible not to feel the character’s torment.

The cast, under the music direction of Eugene Dizon, fills the small space with impressive vocal power. In solos and ensemble numbers, every voice is strong. The clash between time’s stern march and messy sexual yearnings starts with the show’s introductory number “Now/Later/Soon” and carries straight through to the end. Byrnes and Todd deliver “Send in the Clowns” with a directness that sidesteps its weight as Sondheim’s greatest popular hit.

Kevin Webb and Colette Todd. Photo by Elizabeth Stenholt.

Then, placed ingeniously as the eleven o’clock number, “The Miller’s Son” follows those metaphorical clowns. Throughout A Little Night Music, Petra the maid (Madison Kauffman) celebrates her sexuality with an ease that no one else shares. But her song is a lusty reality check, reminding us that the joys of the flesh are short lived. Somehow this dovetails perfectly with Mme. Armfeldt, who has experienced just about everything in her long romantic life, when she asks simply, “What is it all for?”

Why should humans invest in love when it’s so damn hard and absurdly fleeting? Stearns’ production cuts no new turf in exploring an answer to the fundamental question of A Little Night Music. That said, it treats this layered piece with gimmick-free respect. However much aging may or may not fill the minds of those in the audience, a respectful version of the musical is welcome at any time of life.

A Little Night Music continues through July 14 at Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre, 721 Howard Street, Evanston. Tickets are $30-59 (pre-fixe dinner available for an additional $33). Running time is 2.5 hours including one intermission.

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Susan Lieberman

Susan Lieberman is a Jeff-winning playwright, journalist, teacher and script consultant.