In the time-honored tradition of “The Show Must Go On,” the gifted students of USC’s justifiably-lauded Musical Theatre Repertory have overcome a major setback (being assigned an unfriendly-to-musicals off-campus venue for their current production) in this entirely student produced, directed, choreographed, and performed revival of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s A Little Night Music.

Sondheim’s 1973 gem presents a particular challenge to any student production, even one put on by talent as top-drawer as MTR’s. Parts like the glamorous 50ish actress Desiree, her middle-aged lover Fredrik, and Desiree’s elderly mother Madame Armfeldt require a depth and maturity that most 18-to-22-year-olds don’t yet possess, and Sondheim’s challenging melodies and rhythms must be sung by legit, near-operatic voices. Though MTR’s production (with a cast made up entirely of freshmen and sophomores) doesn’t quite beat the odds against it, a number of performances (particularly those of D.J. Blickenstaff, Cole Cuomo, Erin Manker, Tory Stolper, and Adrienne Visnic) come darn close.

20-year-old director-choreographer Matthew McFarland already had a list of credits a mile long when he appeared three years ago in the World Premiere Production of Jason Robert Brown’s 13 at the Mark Taper Forum. This reviewer had the privilege of seeing this triple-threat when he went on terrifically in the role of Eddie, and with A Little Night Music, he can now quite proudly call himself a quintuple threat.

If only MTR had been allowed use of their usual venue, USC’s performance-friendly Massman Theatre, problems like blocking difficulties, poor sight-lines, and a bare-bones set design would likely have been non-existent. Notwithstanding, McFarland and company prove themselves extraordinary troupers, doing their utmost despite daunting challenges.

McFarland introduces the cast in a striking opening sequence that combines sharp turns and piercing glances, and ends with a dramatic swirling waltz around the quintet known as the Liebeslieder Singers, the show’s Greek Chorus. Manhattan Beach native McFarland introduces many clever directorial touches, making sure that Madame Armfeldt never lights her own cigarette, having maid Petra use her feather duster as a playful weapon, and insuring that every one of Charlotte’s verbal arrows hits its mark. McFarland’s staging of the picnic that opens the second act is particularly gorgeous.

As Desiree (the kind of woman who recollects her daughter’s conception with an offhand, “She happened”), Adrienne Visnic brings up images of a very young Katharine Hepburn, and her rendition of “Send In The Clowns” receives, justifiably, the evening’s loudest applause and cheers. D.J. Blickenstaff’s standout work as sophisticated, middle-aged sexy Fredrik is even more remarkable when you learn that he has only recently celebrated his nineteenth birthday. Only a quarter of the age of Broadway’s original Madame Armfeld, Erin Manker gives the part a dry wit and septuagenarian wisdom that belies her youth, and sings a memorable “Liaisons.” Pretty-as-a-picture Emily Rowan is perfectly cast as Anne, Fredrik’s virginal 20ish wife, and an equally good Ben Rudolph manages cuteness and charm even with Henrik’s requisite perpetual hangdog grimace. (My favorite line is Henrik’s “How can I laugh when life makes me want to vomit?”) As spurned wife Charlotte, the marvelous Haley Willis sings “Every Day A Little Death” with such sadness, anger, and resignation that it was a shame this reviewer and those around him were unable to catch more than a glimpse of her hat during the song.

Three members of the cast of last fall’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee are not only among the evening’s best performers, they score bonus points for versatility, each playing as diametrically different a role in A Little Night Music as can be imagined. Cole Cuomo transitions from the cuddly street-thugishness of Mitch Mahoney to the puff-chested bravado of military dragoon Carl-Magnus, and displays the evening’s finest voice in “In Praise Of Women,” a song which features the delicious Sondheim rhyme, “How can you slip and trip into a hip-bath?” Tory Stolper leaves pure-hearted ingénue Olive Ostrovsky behind to sizzle as sexy, saucy Petra (God forbid she should be misconstrued a virgin!), her eleventh hour “The Miller’s Son” every bit the showstopper Sondheim intended it to be. Finally, there’s not a trace of uber-awkward William Barfée in Jeffrey Watson’s splendidly-voiced Liebeslieder Singer, joined by fellow Liebeslieders Jessica Conflitti, Sean Kranz, Rachel Newman, and Tegan Robinett in melodious five-part harmony.

Completing the cast effectively in smaller roles are Stephanie Farugia as Desiree’s eighteen-year-old daughter Frederika and Peter Mitchell as manservant Frid.

I am told that some stagefloor-level seats will be removed beginning tonight, which should solve some sight-line problems, though it would be advisable to move as many of the scenes taking place far downstage at audience level up to the front of the raised stage behind them, either that or have the actors in these scenes stand whenever possible. (Note: None of these blocking/sightline problems would have existed in the Massman.)

The brilliant Michael Alfera serves as musical director, and along with fellow orchestra members, Edgar Sandoval and Hope Easton, provides excellent musical accompaniment even though the Village Gate Theatre permits him almost no view of the stage. Will Sammons’ lighting design is likewise effective despite the “lighting booth” being hidden far offstage, doubtless accounting for several delayed cues. Manuel Prieto has designed lush period costumes. Kranz gets thumbs up for his sound design, assisted by producer Kim Dalton. CeCe Bratton’s hair and makeup are excellent. One can only imagine what kind set designer Victoria Tam could have done at the Massman, one which did not need to be quickly struck following last night’s performance.

Hopefully Musical Theatre Repertory will soon be able to return to facilities befitting their talents and the luster these oh-so-talented young Trojans add to the reputation of USC’s School of Theatre. In the meantime, they are doing their stellar best despite considerable obstacles in their path.

The Village Gate Theatre, 3223 S. Hoover St. Los Angeles. Through January 22. Friday at 7:00 and 11:00 p.m. Sunday at 2:30 and 11:00 p.m.
-Steven Stanley
January 20, 2011

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