Desiree, the Scandinavian actress at the heart of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's "A Little Night Music" and the character who delivers the famously cynical number "Send in the Clowns," is generally played as a grande dame made painfully aware of her own limitations and bad choices. Although Shannon Cochran looks ravishing in the role in director William Brown's exquisitely intimate Writers' Theatre production of this masterfully structured 1973 Broadway musical, mostly about a bunch of middle-aged folks trying to negotiate commitment and desire, her Desiree is very much a beer-and-a-sandwich kind of gal who comes with a good dollop of humor, warmth and, crucially, hope.
Cochran's formidable interpretation of that great Sondheim song "Send in the Clowns" is not so much that the circus of life has been reduced to red-nosed absurdity, although she sees the danger, but that she has finally reconfigured some questionable personal priorities. The clowns might be coming — heck, they are coming for us all — but the actress still is very much enjoying the game of dancing around Jonathan Weir's floundering Fredrik, the perpetually errant lawyer whom she truly loves, if only he would show some interest in being saved from his otherwise ridiculous life.
That optimistic, fertile and ripe sensibility infuses Brown's production with a quite startling amount of romantic life. In the best productions — and this spectacularly cast and gorgeously acted revival in Glencoe is most certainly in that category — "A Little Night Music," which is based on the Ingmar Bergman film "Smiles of a Summer Night," is a very sexy show. The boudoir-like intimacy of Writer's Theatre certainly helps there. Brown is careful not to clutter up the tiny space, mostly using just a few delicate drapes from designer Kevin Depinet and some sexy, boudoir-like attire from costume designer Rachel Anne Healy (mercifully, Healy paints plenty of color into the traditionally white second act). The staging — both in town and in the country — is consistently fluid and compelling, not least when the second-act summer picnic of these hopelessly bourgeoise characters unfurls right below us. At Writer's, you get to watch their hungry scamperings, pitiful bon mots, and declarations of cheap honor from above. It kept putting me in mind of some fetishistic operating theater with several specimens of homo sapiens lying down there, flailing under Sondheim's keen scalpel.
Remarkably, Brown maintains the show's existential angst and sardonic tone — Tiffany Scott, who plays the Countess, is sandpaper dry — while also finding more honest humor in Sondheim's lyrics than is usually the case, especially during "A Weekend in the Country," which is quite the rollicking ditty here. Both Cochran and Weir manage a lighter tone without undermining the truth of their midlife crises.
Love, as both Scott's Countess and the entire show keeps reminding us, is a dirty business at any age. Here, an ever-changing roster of winners and losers are looked down upon by the lofty and aged Madame Armfeldt, whom the formidably deistic Deanna Dunagan plays with both the cold steel of removed judgment and the soft center of hopeless mortality. Brown often has a young man carry Dunagan on and off the stage, as if she were the Dali Lama or some such, capturing both those qualities in a physical instant. Especially in the closing moments, Dunagan's Armfeldt goes well beyond withering truisms; she is, as she should be, the caustic conscience of the show and an embodiment of what happens at our end.
Petra, the all-seeing maid who favors an earthy, sensual life, is played not as the usual young gal in heat, but, by Brianna Borger, as a more mature woman who has turned a life of limited choices into a determination to thrust her sexuality to the fore and laugh at those who don't dare. Her rendition of "The Miller's Son" is much more knowing than most and quite a thrill to hear. "I will pin my hat on a nice piece of property," she sings, leaving no doubt what she means. But the younger performers here are equally good: the teenage Shannon Corey is a near-perfect Fredrika, all innocence and none of it, while both Kristen French's hapless Anne and Royen Kent's intense Henrik hit no false notes as they try to learn about love and sex from role models who know precious little of either. Brandon Dahlquist has the hardest role of the lot in the bombastic Count Carl-Magnus, Desiree's jealous lover, but still manages to fit the piece, even if he's a little young for the role.
They only misstep in the show, really, is the slow and ill-defined opening, which needlessly messes around with some vague actors-warming-up motif. That is cliched and apropos of nothing. Brown should immediately get down to the business of life. But it's gone in less than 10 minutes and is superseded by a 2 hour, 40 minute production chock full of all kinds of delights. The all-important music is presided over by musical director Valerie Maze and musical supervisor Roberta Duchak, both of whom ensure formidable vocal quality — at times, forming a truly remarkable mix of acoustic sound — accompanied by a lovely quintet of piano, violin, cello, woodwinds and harp. Even though the Lieder Singers are mostly combined with the principals and the cast reduced to 11, "A Little Night Music" has rarely sounded better.
The heart of this production, though, lies in its two-person scenes — especially between Cochran and Weir, but throughout its landscape, really. Sondheim nuts will know that it is rare indeed to see a true chamber production of one of his works performed and produced at such a level. It makes you never want to see this show on a large stage; then again, it always seems to surprise and pleasure most everywhere its tent of fools gets erected.
When: Through July 8
Where: Writers' Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes
Tickets: $35-$70 at 847-242-6000 and writerstheatre.org