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HomeMusicMerle Dandridge is sublime in 'A Little Night Music' revival

Merle Dandridge is sublime in ‘A Little Night Music’ revival


Merle Dandridge, where have you been all my theatrical life?

Yes, I know you’ve performed at Pasadena Playhouse before, most notably in Sheldon Epps’ revisal of “Kiss Me, Kate.” But your incandescent performance as Desirée Armfeldt in David Lee’s production of “A Little Night Music” is like a musical theater dream come true.

This revival of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s 1973 classic is the crowning achievement of the Sondheim Celebration, the six-month-long festival in honor of the Broadway composer-lyricist who died in 2021. One of two mainstage Sondheim Celebration offerings — the other being a majestic mounting of “Sunday in the Park With George” — this high-caliber production of “A Little Night Music” offers more proof that Pasadena Playhouse, under the leadership of producing artistic director Danny Feldman, has entered the top ranks of the nation’s regional theaters.

A grand operetta on the vagaries of romantic love, “A Little Night Music” is no small undertaking. Imagine Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” rewritten as a decadent sex farce, set aloft to music that takes its inspiration more from Rachmaninoff than from Rodgers and Hammerstein and unleashed on the stage as a series of waltzes.

Sondheim’s score operates on the principle of theme and variation. Plot and dialogue are plentiful in “A Little Night Music,” but the story is firmly under musical control — one of the reasons that opera houses have grown infatuated with this glamorous Broadway hybrid.

Lee’s production takes a little time to settle in. In the early going at Sunday’s opening, there was some acoustic disconnect between the singers and the orchestra before a fuller sound eventually emerged.

Compounding the uneasiness, the ensemble introduces the dramatis personae in strokes that can seem unnecessarily broad. I’ll confess to having a few moments of doubt about whether Pasadena Playhouse was going to be able to pull this off, but everything snapped into place as soon as Dandridge took center stage.

Desirée is at the eye of the musical’s romantic hurricane, and Dandridge captures the character’s sangfroid in the midst of chaos. Theatrical assurance is seductive, and the beauty of her singing is as entrancing as her impeccable comic timing and emotional groundedness.

“A Little Night Music” is derived from Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” a breakthrough work for the Swedish auteur and one of his more lighthearted films. Of course, even a comedy by Bergman is going to be shadowed to an extent by mortality. Sondheim and Wheeler stay true to the Shakespearean poise of the vision. The laughter emanates not as an escape from time but as an acceptance of its inexorable reality.

A full synopsis would be a dizzying experience, but the musical has a neat geometry. A loves B who loves C who loves D, but genuine objects of affection can get misplaced in the ensuing madness.

Set in Sweden at the turn of the 20th century, “A Little Night Music” centers on Desirée, who is touring in a French comedy that stops at the town of her former lover, Fredrik Egerman (Michael Hayden), a prominent lawyer, who decides to attend the play with his 18-year-old wife, Anne (Kaley Ann Voorhees). The marriage between Fredrik and Anne hasn’t yet been consummated, not simply because Anne is young and skittish but because she is in love with Henrik (Chase Del Rey), Fredrik’s neurotic and self-serious son, who’s studying for the ministry while fending off temptation at home.

Meanwhile, Desirée, who looms as large in Fredrik’s mind as he does in hers, is having an affair with Count Carl-Magnus Malcom (Ryan Silverman), a dragoon who’s nearly all brawn and no brain. Intensely jealous, he finds Fredrik having an intimate tête-à-tête with Desirée after her performance. Worse, this middle-aged interloper is wearing his robe. Excuses are proffered, but the Count brings his furious grievance to his long-suffering wife, Charlotte (Sarah Uriarte Berry), who happens to be a family friend of Anne’s. A dutiful if grousing spouse, Charlotte is sent on a mission by her husband to discover the true goings-on between Desirée and Fredrik.

Rounding out this roundelay, Petra (Ruby Lewis), the Egerman’s maid, also fancies Henrik, enticing him whenever she can into a quick tumble on the couch. She’d settle for the miller’s son, as she’ll magnificently explain in song in the second act, but the shy, sensitive scion of a lawyer is hard to resist.

Establishing the nature of these relationships is not quite as tricky as establishing what the characters truly want. Hearts dissemble, jealousies can spring up out of nowhere and erotic desire leads everyone astray.

A scene from David Lee’s production of “A Little Night Music” at Pasadena Playhouse.

(Jeff Lorch)

The first act ends with the brilliant company number “A Weekend in the Country,” the scheme that Desirée concocts to bring the lovelorn and the lovesick to her mother’s estate. There, Madame Armfeldt (Jodi Long), an ex-courtesan with imperious manners, expensive taste and Wildean wit, observes the rascally antics while properly educating Fredrika (Makara Gamble), Desirée’s illegitimate daughter (guess who the father is), in properly parsing the human comedy swirling around them.

Wilson Chin’s scenic design creates an atmosphere of old-world affluence without the encumbrance of too many set pieces, allowing the musical to glide at an accelerated pace to its mostly happy conclusion. A choral group that sets the show’s stylized tone occasionally seems lost in space, but the ebullience of the staging maintains the farcical-romantic flow.

In general, the women are stronger performers than the men. Nearly all the singing triumphs belong to them. Long delivers Madame Armfeldt’s “Liaisons” with raspy defiance. Berry nails every lyrical note of domestic rigor mortis in “Every Day a Little Death.” Lewis earns the late spotlight of Petra’s “The Miller’s Son” with vocal brio. Voorhees, lighting up her duets and trios with a gorgeous soprano, is perhaps at her most musical when releasing one of Anne’s mirror-shattering laugh.

But ultimately it all comes down to Desirée’s “Send in the Clowns,” which Dandridge delivers with a sublime restraint that only deepens the sense of overwhelming pathos. The magnificence of the singing melts the audience, but it’s the tragic-comic equilibrium — the unflusterable smile concealing a heart being shredded — that makes the song so devastating.

Desirée is ahead of Fredrik in her understanding of the “coherence” of their match — the way it would put everything into proper order. The deeply felt elegance of Dandridge’s rendition of “Send in the Clowns” enlightens, even if belatedly, Hayden’s Fredrik, who grows in gravitas and, therefore, appeal.

This revival of “A Little Night Music” elucidates what Sondheim uniquely offers — humanity, in all its rough edges, captured in musical theater craft that is, as Ben Jonson said of Shakespeare’s genius, “not of an age, but for all time.”

‘A Little Night Music’

Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends May 28
Tickets: Start at $39
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes
Contact: (626) 356-7529 or PasadenaPlayhouse.org



This story originally appeared on LA Times

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