In a 180-degree stylistic turn from last year’s Grease (USC’s most crowd-pleasing big-stage musical in years), the School Of Dramatic Arts revives Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s A Little Night Music so exquisitely that only its cast’s youth distinguishes it from the best of professional revivals.

It helps enormously that director/choreographer Kelly Ward’s inspired vision is evident from the production’s gorgeously conceived and staged opening sequence, one that has almost the entire cast waltzing in ever more inventive spirals, setting the tone for a musical whose songs are each and every one of them in three-quarter time.

bbb Sondheim and Wheeler’s 1973 adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night features a cast of romantically mismatched characters who unite for “A Weekend In The Country,” at the end of which virtually the entire bunch may end up paired with someone other than the person with whom he/she arrived.

A Little Night Music introduces us to glamorous stage star Desiree Armfeldt (Annika Ellwanger-Chavez), her former lover Fredrik (Taubert Nadalini), Fredrik’s “child bride” Anne (Maxine Phoenix), his sexually frustrated son Henrik (Dorian Tayler), Desiree’s current lover Carl-Magnus (Connor McCreary), and Carl-Magnus’s disillusioned wife Charlotte (Katie Pimentel).

There’s also Desiree’s wheelchair-bound mother Madame Armfeldt (Camille Langston) and the actress’s tween daughter Fredrika (Sarah Rosenthal), as well as saucy/macho servants Petra (Molly Chiffer) and Frid (Kyle McLaughlin).

Acting as a kind of Greek chorus behind these characters are the Liebeslieders, made up of Liz Buzbee (Mrs. Nordstrom), Chas Conacher (Mr. Erlanson), Austin Dalgleish (Mr. Lindquist), Julianna Keller (Mrs. Segstrom), Carson Klasner (Mrs. Hult), Brooke Lewis (Mrs. Anderssen), and Robert Lee Terry (Mr. Solberg), singing and dancing and commenting wryly on what fools these particular mortals be.

Act One sets the scene for the country weekend soon to come with some of master songwriter Sondheim’s most memorable gems.

Sung consecutively and then in counterpoint, “Now, “Later,” and “Soon” reveal Fredrik’s frustration with his virginal wife, Anne’s fear of sexual intimacy, and Henrik’s teenage horniness.

Fredrik expresses his desire for his former lover to get to know his teen bride in “You Must Meet My Wife,” something Desiree is less than excited about; “Liaisons” has the elderly Madame Armfeldt instructing her granddaughter in the gentility of her generation’s romantic entanglements; and Carl Magnus does his best to convince himself that the discovery of a half-dressed Desiree and Fredrik together in her boudoir was entirely innocent in “In Praise Of Women.”

Most powerful of all, “Every Day A Little Death” gives us a deeply unhappy Charlotte laying bare the devastation of her marriage to a cheating louse.

And then comes the aforementioned full-cast “A Weekend In The Country,” an invitation to return post-intermission to find all of the above characters united for a life-changing fin de semaine.

Unlike last year’s Grease, which allowed its college-age cast to play characters close to their own age (and was therefore almost indistinguishable from a professional production), A Little Night Music asks virtually the entire ensemble to play older, and in some cases much older, a demand that proves both challenging and rewarding to performers who will have to wait decades to play the same parts professionally, as well as to an audience who must see beyond a cast’s youth.

Fortunately, an all-around splendid ensemble makes it easy to suspend disbelief.

Ellwanger-Chavez combines the beauty of a classic movie star (think 1940s legend Linda Darnell) with the sophistication of a woman twice her age to bring Desiree to dazzling life, and her “Send In The Clowns” is among the best.

A fabulous Pimentel digs deep into a woman’s pain in her powerful turn as Charlotte, and never more so than in a gut-wrenching, superbly performed “Every Day A Little Death.”

Chiffer makes for an earthy, scene-stealingly saucy Petra, her eleventh-hour “The Miller’s Son” earning the evening’s loudest cheers, and deservedly so.

Nadalini’s stuffy but vulnerable Fredrik, Tayler’s tormented romantic Henrik, and McCreary’s deliciously narcissistic Carl-Magnus are all terrific, as are Phoenix as the vivacious, flighty Anne, Langston as the wise/wry-with-age Madame Armfeldt, and Rosenthal as a precociously mature Fredrika.

Buzbee, Conacher, Dalgleish, Keller, Klasner, Lewis, and Terry perform multiple roles to perfection and (like everyone in the cast) sing quite gloriously under Parmer Fuller’s expert musical direction, with McLaughlin, Shannon Sheridan (Osa), dance captain John “Jack” Tavcar (Bertrand, Theatre Page), and Ashley Busenlener (Malla) lending able support in cameo roles.

Musical director Fuller conducts a Broadway-caliber pit orchestra, vocals and instrumentals mixed to perfection by sound designers Danielle Kisner and Stephen Jensen.

USC seniors Lea Branyan (scenic design) and Marly Hall (costume design) and Class-of-2017’s Justus Bradshaw (lighting design) make this A Little Night Music look every bit as stunning as anything you’d see on a major regional theater stage.

Alex Rehberger is stage manager. Kevin Paley is assistant director.

USC’s Bing Theatre musicals are an annual April treat, offering L.A. audiences the chance to experience rarely-staged musicals like The Most Happy Fella and Grand Hotel in the kind of big-stage revivals most regional theaters would find financially prohibitive.

That A Little Night Music proves one of the School Of Dramatic Arts’ finest is saying something indeed.

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Bing Theatre, 3500 Watts Way, Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
March 31, 2016
Photos: Craig Schwartz

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