As part of the theatre’s celebration of the life and work of Stephen Sondheim, David Lee directs a rousing version of the romantic musical farce that opened the door to a legendary career.
By John Lavitt
Pasadena, CA (The Hollywood Times) 05/5/23 – As the State Theatre of California, the Pasadena Playhouse proudly presents A Little Night Music as part of the first major festival honoring Stephen Sondheim since his passing in 2021. Directed with verve by David Lee with choreography by Mark Esposito and musical supervision by Daryl Archibald, the musical’s opening night was a success. Although very much of its time when first produced on Broadway in 1973, the musical has held up remarkably well with clever pacing and contagious numbers.
Moreover, A Little Night Music continues the woke revisionary trend in major theatrical productions with Merle Dandridge as actress Desiree Armfeldt and Jodi Long as Madame Armfeldt. With an African American father and an Asian mother, Merle Dandridge is sometimes mistaken online for being Latina or Native American. When taking on this role, however, her ethnic background does not matter in the slightest.
Living up to her predecessors that range from Bernadette Peters and Catherine Zeta-Jones to Kristin Scott Thomas and Dame Judy Dench, Merle Dandridge inhabits the role with confidence and presence. Indeed, she transforms Desiree’s need to find true love and a lasting home for her daughter into an undeniable strength of character. There is no doubt that this woman will achieve what she desires.
As Madame Armfeldt, Jodi Long is a welcome surprise, providing comic relief and a stolid presence as she supervises the life of Desiree’s precocious daughter (an adorable Makara Gamble). Every time the old lady’s wheelchair is rolled out onto the stage, you know something wild about the character’s adventurous past will come out of her mouth. Jodi Long provides comic relief to the storyline that offers a sense of historical perspective.
In supporting roles, Sarah Uriarte Berry and Ruby Lewis also shine. As Countess Charlotte Malcolm, the wife to an incredibly narcissistic dragoon, Sarah Uriarte Berry truly conveys the torturous road of being married to a self-involved, self-justifying cheater of a husband. From her first scene to her last, her complex emotions take the play to new depths and heights of emotional reality. As part of the audience, the empathy you feel for her is genuine.
Although the men are capable in their roles, particularly Michael Hayden as the lawyer Fredrik Egerman, the biggest surprise of the play is Ruby Lewis as Petra, the randy Maid of the Egerman family. From her very first scene until her last wide smile, she fills the stage with a sexual bawdiness that is refreshing and fun. Indeed, she steals every scene she’s in with a palpable hunger. The delight she feels as a woman in the world radiates from her presence. Whether making fun of the repressed Henrik Egerman (Chase Del Rey) or running around in the woods with her lover, Ruby Lewis conveys joie de vivre, highlighting the themes of the musical.
With A Little Night Music, the Sondheim Festival at the Pasadena Playhouse continues to be an ongoing highlight of the 2023 theatrical season in Southern California. On stage for five more weeks, the production is a rare chance to see one of the great composer’s classic big-stage musicals brought to life with energy and excitement. After all, isn’t it time to send in the clowns?