Catch ’em while you can: "A Little Night Music" and "Venus in Fur"

By J. Cooper Robb
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jun. 11, 2013

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Along comes Vanda: Mark Alhadeff (left) and Jenni Putney star in Philadelphia Theatre Company’s "Venus in Fur." (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

A Little Night Music
Through June 30. $36-$48. Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. Second St.

The Arden Theatre concludes its season with Stephen Sondheim’s timeless A Little Night Music, one of the finest shows in the company’s 25-year history.

Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night, the musical focuses on a variety of romantic entanglements between a group of well-to-do Swedes in the early 19th century. Featuring lyrics and music by Sondheim and a terrific libretto by Hugh Wheeler, the characters are reminiscent of the sort found in the plays of Anton Chekhov: restless, often unhappy and madly in love with the wrong people. But while Chekhov’s tragicomedies tend to be more tragic than comic, the tone in the Arden’s Night Music is considerably lighter and more optimistic. In Terrence J. Nolen’s hands, there is magic in the air, and not since the director’s 1998 staging of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream has an Arden production more adeptly captured the lunacy that love can inspire. This is the 12th Sondheim musical Nolen has helmed at the Arden, and it may be his best yet.

Scenic designer James Kronzer’s sets are surprisingly spare, its minimalism only heightening the effect of Thom Weaver’s ravishing lighting, Jorge Cousineau’s extraordinary sound design and Rosemary E. McKelvey’s handsome costumes. And while Night Music’s visual appeal is undeniable, the show’s aural prowess is even more impressive. Sondheim’s remarkable songs are composed almost exclusively in 3/4 time (often known as “waltz time”), and his mix of enormously complex meter and his trademark patter make Night Music’s score a challenge for even the most accomplished singers. Nolen, however, casts several major roles with nonsingers, a daring move that pays off brilliantly. Neither Christopher Patrick Mullen (portraying the insecure lawyer Fredrik Egerman) or Grace Gonglewski, playing Desiree, are known for their singing, but under Nolen’s direction, their vocals are anything but liabilities, and their performance of the show’s signature tune, “Send in the Clowns,” is remarkably touching. In other key roles, Nolen casts accomplished vocalists. Ben Dibble—who may be the finest pure singer in Philadelphia theater—is outstanding as the brash and conceited Count Carl-Magnus. Teaming with Mullin on the brilliant duet “It Would Have Been Wonderful,” the actors’ dramatically different vocal styles emphasize the varying personalities of the characters they portray to great effect.

Other superb performances include Sally Mercer as Madame Armfeldt and Alex Keiper as the passionate maid, Petra. One of the fastest rising stars in local theater, Keiper’s bold interpretation of “The Miller’s Son,” one of the musical’s few solos, is among its many high points. Still, A Little Night Music’s best performance belongs to Karen Peakes, who stole each scene with her wonderfully nuanced and profoundly moving portrayal of Carl-Magnus’ beleaguered wife, Countess Charlotte Malcolm.

Overall, the Arden’s smart production of Sondheim’s justly celebrated romantic comedy is unforgettably funny, spectacularly dreamy and thoroughly entertaining.

Venus in Fur
Through June 23. $46-$59. Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St. 215.985.0420.

David Ives’ hit play Venus in Fur, an exceptional production by Philadelphia Theatre Company, is an impressively theatrical work that consistently toes the thin line between fantasy and reality. His works often favor style over substance, but in this drama, the playwright shrewdly combines the artifice of theater with role-playing in the bedroom to explore the role power plays in relationships between men and women.

The action takes place in a New York studio, where playwright Thomas (Mark Alhadeff) is auditioning actresses for the lead role in his new play. Thomas is preparing to call it a day when Vanda, played by the amazing Jenni Putney, bursts into the room. Soaking wet and fighting with an unhelpful umbrella, Vanda unleashes a string of expletives that would make a longshoreman blush. As her alarming tantrum subsides, Thomas sarcastically inquires, “Can I run out and fill any prescriptions for you?”

Despite seeming entirely unsuitable for the role, Thomas allows Vanda to audition, and she is shockingly good. His play is an adaptation of a 19th-century German novel that focuses on a nobleman who gets satisfaction from being dominated by a woman he meets at a resort. The woman in Thomas’ play is named Vanda, which is just one of the many things about this mysterious actress that arouse our suspicions. It is Vanda’s identity that is the central mystery in Venus in Fur. Ives’ conclusion is slightly disappointing, but the increasingly eerie relationship between Vanda and Thomas keeps us thoroughly involved as we try to determine what is real and what is not.

Under Kip Fagan’s capable direction, both actors are terrific. Thomas’ is the less intriguing role, but Alhadeff is excellent at exploring his character’s complicated psychological make-up, and his strong performance keeps the production balanced. Nevertheless, it is Putney’s volcanic, enigmatic portrayal of Vanda that makes Venus in Fur a simultaneously fascinating and thrilling must-see.

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