KINGSTON, R.I. – April 10, 2019 – A weekend in the country with people who have serious relationship issues might not sound like a good time.
But throw in the music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim and you’ll be happy you decamped to the Swedish countryside at the turn of the last century – the setting for the University of Rhode Island Theatre’s production of “A Little Night Music.” The play opens Thursday, April 18, in the Fine Arts Center on the Kingston Campus.
“A Little Night Music,” which debuted on Broadway in 1973 and won five Tony Awards, follows the overlapping affairs of three couples who come together at the estate of Madame Armfeldt. Her daughter, Desiree, a once-successful actress, is the mistress of comically pompous Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, who is married to the cynical but still romantic Countess Charlotte.
Adding to the magnificent mess, Desiree’s former lover, Fredrik Egerman, still pines for her. But Fredrik, a middle-aged lawyer, is married to his child bride, Anne, but their marriage, unconsummated after 11 months, is less than ideal.
“It’s such a beautifully delicate, abrasive, funny, romantic comedy,” says director Paula McGlasson. “Some would say, it’s the turn of the century, it’s set in Sweden, how accessible could this be? But it’s us. If you’re married to someone and love someone else, that story goes through time.”
McGlasson, a URI theater professor and former chair of the department for 18 years, has been involved in every URI musical since joining the department in 1985, beginning as a choreographer for director Judith Swift, who is a URI professor of communications studies and theater and director of the Coastal Institute. McGlasson started directing the annual musicals in 1998.
Sondheim, Pulitzer Prize winning lyricist and composer of such musicals as “Sweeney Todd” and “Into the Woods,” is her favorite. And “A Little Night Music” tops her list of Sondheim’s work. It also was the first of his musicals she was in, playing Desiree at Bradley University in the 1970s.
“My memories of it are nothing but splendid,” she says. “I just knew as a performer when I met that material, I touched gold. The way he taps into each character, into their thoughts and their feelings as succinctly as he does, it’s just dreamwork for an actor.”
McGlasson has directed numerous Sondheim musicals at URI, but this will be the first time she’s staged “Night Music.” “I say this to the students almost every other night – I love this music,” she says. “I just enjoy watching them come to love him to some degree like I do. It’s just incredible to give them that experience.”
It’s far from an easy experience, though.
“It’s super challenging music,” says Brooks Shatraw ’19, who plays Fredrik’s son, the serious and repressed Henrik. “There are really hard rhythmic lines and meticulous pitches, but it all makes it easier to act because he makes it so the rhythms become conversations.”
“His music is so important because you have to listen to the lyrics,” adds Lauren Jannetti ’21, who plays Petra, the Egermans’ maid. “In other musicals, a song might just be there because there’s a dance number, but with Sondheim, you need to pay attention because it furthers the plot.”
“Every little thing means something, musically and lyrically,” says Emily Turtle ’19, who plays Anne, “and that means, as an actor, you have to know everything that’s happening.”
All three actors started young in musicals and are veterans of URI’s annual productions. Turtle, of Barrington, has been in all four musicals during her college career, including the lead in last year’s “Mary Poppins.” Shatraw, of North Smithfield, who transferred to URI his sophomore year, has been in three, and Jannetti, of Lincoln, has been in two during her time here.
“Musical theater is my love,” says Turtle. “I think it’s a very complex form of theater because there are so many different things you have to think about at once – the choreography, the dialogue, the singing.”
“I feel like a lot of people don’t think about the acting aspect of musical theater,” says Jannetti. “They think that if you’re a good singer, you can do a musical, but that’s not the case.”
“You have to make it believable that someone would start singing,” adds Shatraw. “It’s a completely different challenge.”
“A Little Night Music” is a modest production compared with last year’s musical, “Mary Poppins,” with about half the cast. It also will be staged in the smaller J Studio and be accompanied by four musicians. It’s been a familiar setting for two of URI’s Sondheim productions – “Assassins” and “Company.”
“J Studio is a fun place to work,” says McGlasson. “Sondheim plays well in an intimate atmosphere because his lyrics are intimate. It’s that specific character approach to his songs. It seems to work well.”
That intimate setting will also highlight the period designs of costume shop manager Alison Carrier. “What a period, 1900. It’s just gorgeous, the hairstyles, the hats,” says McGlasson, “and Alison has designed some really sumptuous costumes.”
Also behind the scenes are musical director Lila Kane, choreographers Dante Sciarra and Valerie Ferris, set designer Renee Surprenant Fitzgerald, lighting designer Jessica Winward, sound designer Michael Hyde and stage manager Nicole Petta.
“A Little Night Music” runs April 18-20 and April 25-28 with shows starting at 7:30 p.m. in the J Studio of the Fine Arts Center, 105 Upper College Road, on the Kingston Campus. On April 27 and 28, matinees will begin at 2 p.m. (Please note: there is no matinee on April 21.) Tickets are $20 for general admission, $18 for seniors, URI faculty, staff and students. To purchase tickets, visit the current season web page, or call (401) 874-5843. Seating is limited so please call to reserve in advance.
Cast of “A Little Night Music”:
Actor, hometown, character
Ryan Alexander, Portsmouth, Bertrand
Kaela Bergeron, Scituate, Mrs. Nordstrom
Emily Carter, Scituate, Desiree Armfeldt
Jeremy Chiang, South Kingstown, Mr. Erlansen
J. Edward Clarke, Narragansett, Fredrik Egerman
Maria Day Hyde, North Kingstown, Madame Armfeldt
Trey DiGioia, Bristol, Frid
Daniel F. Greene, Easton, Mass., Carl-Magnus Malcolm
Zoe Hayn, Colchester, Conn., Malla
Dean Hernandez, East Providence, Mr. Lindquist
Lauren Jannetti, Lincoln, Petra
Emily Maclean, Chariho, Charlotte Malcolm
Erin McGowan, Zionsville, Pa., Mrs. Segstrom
Mary Mullane, Warwick, Mrs. Anderson
Kate Rocchio, Wakefield, Fredrika Armfeldt
Brooks A. Shatraw, North Smithfield, Henrik Egerman
Jameson A. Sheridan, Hanover, Mass., Olaf
Emily Turtle, Barrington, Anne Egerman