East West Players continues its love affair with Stephen Sondheim with a fresh, new Asian-Pacific Islander take on A Little Night Music, one which follows in the footsteps of past EWP-SS collaborations begun back in 1979 with Pacific Overtures. Company, Follies, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum, Into The Woods, Marry Me A Little, Merrily We Roll Along, Passion, and Sweeney Todd have all gotten East West Players makeovers since then, and now Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s 1973 adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night at last makes its East West debut.

 Though the Tim Dang-directed revival sticks faithfully to Wheeler’s book with its Scandinavian names and European references, Dang, set designer Adam Flemming, and costume designer Jessica Olson have transposed the action to what they dub “the most European of Asian cities,” bamboo trees and patterned silk and batik garb suggesting somewhere in Southeast Asia. Though an equatorial locale would seem an unlikely one for a musical set in a land where “The sun won’t set. It’s fruitless to hope or to fret. It’s dark as it’s going to get,” this is after all a musical, a genre where suspension of disbelief is de rigueur. Besides, who’s going to nitpick with designs as gorgeous as Flemming’s and Olson’s, lit to saturated perfection by Dan Weingarten?

With all of its songs in three-quarter time, Sondheim’s “waltz musical” features a cast of romantically mismatched characters meeting for “A Weekend In The Country,” at the end of which almost every one of them has paired up with someone other than the person he/she arrived with.

 There’s glamorous stage star Desiree (Melody Butiu), her former lover Fredrik (Jon Jon Briones), Fredrik’s “child bride” Anne (Katy Tang), his sexually frustrated son Henrik (Glenn Fernandez), Desiree’s current lover Carl Magnus (Marcus Choi), and Carl Magnus’s disillusioned wife Charlotte (Tiffany-Marie Austin). There’s also Desiree’s mother Madame Armfeldt (Karen Huie) and the actress’s teenage daughter Fredrika (Sascha Tominaga), as well as saucy servant girl Petra (Maegan McConnell) and handsome servant Frid (Joseph Andreas). Behind these characters and serving as a kind of Greek chorus are the Liebeslieders, made up of Kerry K. Carnahan, Jennifer Hubilla, DT Matias, Kristina Reyes, and Paul Wong as Mrs. Nordstrom, Mrs. Anderson, Mr. Eranson, Mrs. Segstrom, and Mr. Lidquist.

As Dang conceives it, these five harmonizers embody spirits of the past, observing and commenting on the present as the Turn-Of-The-20th-Century characters demonstrate the truth Shakespeare’s, “What fools these mortals be.” (There’s more than a bit of A Midsummer Night’s Dream wonder in A Little Night Music.)

Act One sets the scene for the country weekend to come. “Now, “Later,” and “Soon” reveal Fredrik’s frustration with his virginal wife, Anne’s fear of sexual intimacy, and Henrik’s teenage horniness. “You Must Meet My Wife” expresses Fredrik’s desire for his former lover to get to know his teen bride, provoking from Desiree a dry “If I must.” In “Liaisons,” the elderly Madame Armfeldt instructs her granddaughter in the gentility of her generation’s romantic entanglements. “In Praise Of Women” has Carl Magnus attempting to convince himself that the discovery of a half-dressed Desiree and Fredrik together was entirely innocent. (“She wouldn’t…therefore they didn’t… So then it wasn’t…not unless it…would she? She doesn’t…God knows she needn’t…therefore it’s not.”) In “Every Day A Little Death,” Charlotte lays bare the devastation of finding herself married to a cheating louse.

 And then comes that “Weekend In The Country,” one well worth coming back from intermission for.

For his latest excursion into Sondheim territory, director Dang has recruited a crème-de-la-crème cast of Asian-American triple-threats and given them the opportunity to sink their teeth into characters they might not normally be seen as “Scandinavian” enough to play.

First and foremost there is the luminescent Butiu, radiating style, glamour, and grace as Desiree, and singing the iconic “Send In The Clowns” in a rich, smoky mezzo that may have you feeling you’re hearing it for the first time.

 Briones captures Fredrik’s stuffiness, Choi is a hoot as narcissistic Carl Magnus, and Fernandez makes Henrik every bit as cute as he is lumpish—and all three sing gloriously. Andreas too makes a strong impression in the cameo role of Frid.

Among the women, Tang is an exquisite Anne, recalling at times a young Catherine Zeta-Jones, Austin is a heartbreakingly broken Charlotte, and McConnell a saucy sex-kitten as Petra. Tang’s lovely “Soon,” Austin’s aching “Every Day A Little Death,” and McConnell’s show-stopping “The Miller’s Son” are all vocal highlights. Huie’s marvelous Madame Arnfelt sings “Liasons” with a deliciously dry wit, and young Tominaga makes for a delightful Fredrika.

 Dang keeps Carnahan, Hubilla, Matias, Reyes, and Wong onstage almost throughout, and the fivesome’s contributions, vocal and otherwise, prove invaluable.

Caroline Su deserves high marks for her musical direction as does Justin W. Wu for his vocal direction. (Wong is assistant vocal director.) Reggie Lee scores too with his spritely choreography, with an emphasis on the one-two-three, one-two, three. Kudos go too to property master Ken Takemoto.

Only the uncredited sound design needs fine-tuning. While Dang’s desire for a live, acoustic sound makes good sense, more amplification is needed for vocal performances to be heard clearly over the onstage piano, violins, and cello, particularly in more quietly sung passages.

Ondina V. Dominguez is stage manager and VIVIS assistant stage manager.

It’s been six years since East West Players’ most recent Sondheim “book musical” (their much-lauded reprise of Sweeney Todd), making the return of musical theater’s most illustrious Stephen to the stage of the David Henry Hwang Theatre a welcome one. A Little Night Music makes for Lots Of Night Magic indeed.

East West Players, David Henry Hwang Theatre, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
May 16, 2012
Photos: Michael Lamont

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