By Lynn Venhaus

Infused with humor and a breezy charm, Stray Dog Theatre’s enchanting interpretation of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” brings out starlit summer imagery, the glory and glimmer of love, and the best in a resplendent cast.

On opening night, nature supplied a full moon on a crisp autumn evening outside the Tower Grove Abbey, a serendipitous touch. Imagine the golden glow of a warm, fragrant moonlit midsummer night – and you’ll easily slip into the mood for this sophisticated romp.

Set in Sweden at the turn of the 20th century, “A Little Night Music” concerns several pairs in various stages of romance or uncoupling – and what entanglements transpire during a summer sojourn in the country.

Liz Mischel is amusingly sarcastic as the unfiltered Madame Leonora Armfeldt, a wealthy matriarch who had colorful liaisons as a courtesan. She is schooling her innocent granddaughter Fredrika (a sweet and assured Adeline Perry) on the ways of the world – and men. She tells her the summer night ‘smiles’ three times: first on the young, second on fools, and third on the old.

The Armfeldts and servants picnicking. Photo by John Lamb

Madame’s daughter, the alluring, touring stage actress Desiree Armfeldt (Paula Stoff Dean) is a force of nature known for not playing by the rules. Her old lover, attorney Fredrik Egerman (Jon Hey), married a naïve young woman Anne (Eileen Engel) about 30 years his junior 11 months ago, and their union has not been consummated (her issues).

The coquettish but inexperienced wife teases her serious husband’s awkward son, Henrik (Bryce A. Miller), by his late first wife, who is studying for the ministry but has feelings for her, his stepmother. Although clumsy, he is not impervious to desire and has a dalliance with her maid, an older and wiser Petra (a brassy Sarah Gene Dowling making her character’s worldliness obvious).

Miller has to demonstrate the widest emotional range as the confused and ready-to-explode Henrik, and he effectively finesses the fine line between the melodramatic and the comedic to distinguish himself in a cast of veterans.

Desiree is currently the mistress of self-absorbed Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Scott Degitz-Fries), a buffoon whose jealous wife, Countess Charlotte (Madeline Black), is in on the charade. Degitz-Fries plays the military royal as an obnoxious, arrogant chauvinist who is not used to ‘no.’ Black channels her rage into a scheme – you know the adage about women scorned – but keeps her character’s refinement intact.

They all circle around and back to each other. Fredrik has taken Anne to see Desiree’s latest play, which eventually leads to an invitation for a country excursion. The complications culminate in the anticipation, flirting, fighting, and fleeing that takes place in the second act. Does love win in the end?

Hey, Dean. Photo by John Lamb.

One look at the waltzing quintet in their summer whites that starts this elegant show, and you’re transported back to a different era. Splendidly delivering “Night Waltz,” Cory Anthony, Shannon Lampkin Campbell, Jess McCawley, Kevin O’ Brien and Dawn Schmid glide across the stage as the Liebeslieder Singers, astutely controlling the tempo.

They act like a Greek chorus, and their lush harmonies soar in “The Glamorous Life,” “Remember?” and “The Sun Won’t Set.”

The entire cast’s strong vocal prowess is noteworthy throughout, but a masterfully arranged “Weekend in the Country” is a triumph.

Dean has decided to belt the signature song, “Send in the Clowns,” instead of reciting nearly all of it, as others have done, and it’s a fine rendition. Another highpoint is Dowling’s “The Miller’s Son,” emphatically sung as a mix of longing and reflection.

Whether they are singing solo or in duets, or at the same time with different songs (“Now” by Fredrik, “Later” by Henrik and “Soon” by Anne), you’ll marvel at how seamless the numbers are performed.

Black and Engel lament together on infidelity, smoothly combining in “Every Day a Little Death,” and Degitz-Fries has his moment with “In Praise of Women.”

Photo by John Lamb

Employing the beautiful orchestrations of Jonathan Tunick, Music Director Leah Schultz uses three string players that elevate the sumptuous sound. The orchestra is prominently placed on stage, and their work is exquisite.

Schultz, also playing piano, expertly conducts the seven-piece orchestra that includes a cello (Michaela Kuba), a violin (Steve Frisbee) and a bass (M. Joshua Ryan), along with Ian Hayden and David Metzger on reeds and Joe Winters on percussion.

The way director Justin Been has shaken off the stodginess and stuffiness of a high society period piece is impressive. He’s embraced the farcical aspect of revolving romantic hook-ups, sleekly moving the characters through a country estate, the grounds, and an adjacent forest

Looking at the book by Hugh Wheeler with a fresh set of eyes gave it needed oomph, and the ensemble, nimble in comedy, conveys a playfulness that endears. Been has brilliantly adapted the very theatrical and somewhat operetta-ish work for the small stage.

The original 1973 Broadway production won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical, book, and score, and has had revivals in London’s West End and Broadway, adapted into a 1977 film starring Elizabeth Taylor, and has been performed by opera companies around the world – including this summer’s traditional format at Union Avenue Opera in St. Louis.

Anne and Henrik. Photo by John Lamb

With a minimum of set pieces, Been has depicted the states of different affairs well. He designed modern Scandinavian impressionistic slats that hang above the orchestra, perhaps as a nod to magic realism. Jacob Baxley’s sound design and Tyler Duenow’s lighting design add to the imagery.

The creators claim the musical was suggested by Ingmar Bergman’s romantic comedy, “Smiles of a Summer Night,” which premiered in 1955, and is a staple at film retrospectives.

You might not think of Bergman as a merry sort of guy, particularly if you’ve seen his critically acclaimed classics “The Seventh Seal,” “Persona,” “Cries and Whispers,” and “Through a Glass Darkly.” But he mixed sugar and spice to come up with a confection that’s been ‘borrowed’ more than a few times. (Woody Allen’s 1982 “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy,” to name one, which also references Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”).

But this Bergman-inspired fantasia is much lighter, and Been has brought out the laughter, easy on the melancholy – yet has middle-agers expressing regrets.

Dean, Hey. Photo by John Lamb

Hey, as Fredrik, and Dean, as Desiree, portray a rueful pair, looking back wistfully and rediscovering their spark. The accomplished actors display a natural rhythm with each other, especially in “You Must Meet My Wife.”

Like the music, the dance numbers are polished, choreographed by Michael Hodges with an emphasis on regal posture — although, at first, notice how awkward the pairings are – it’s on purpose, ahem).

Engel, who is delightful as the conflicted Anne, designed the costumes – and they are a mix of ethereal and chic, conveying the social status of each character. The hair and wig design by Dowling suitably complimented the looks.

Hey and Engel were part of Stray Dog’s “Sweeney Todd” in spring 2017, he in the title role and she as daughter Johanna, and know the challenges Sondheim presents, and their experience serves them well.

Sondheim’s work is getting a lot of posthumous attention – but that’s a good thing, never enough Sondheim done well. Like the recently revived “Into the Woods,” some of his musicals take on richer, more contemplative meaning as one ages and revisits them again.

Stray Dog’s superb “A Little Night Music” is worth the immersion, featuring a triple-threat cast in fine form and an inspired creative team.

The Liebeslieder Singers. Photo by John Lamb.

Stray Dog Theatre presents the Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays through Oct. 22, with additional performances at 2 pm Sunday, Oct. 16 and 8 pm Wednesday Oct.19. Performances take place at Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee in Tower Grove East. Tickets are only offered in physically distanced groups of two or four. For more information: www.straydogtheatre.org

Hey and Degitz “It Would Have Been Wonderful.” Photo by John Lamb

By Lynn Venhaus
At once an urgent call to action, historical political drama, and heart-wrenching story of love and friendship, “The Normal Heart” captures a specific time and place while resonating as a cautionary tale.

With an ensemble cast devoted to making every emotional beat authentic, Stray Dog Theatre’s brave and fearless production chronicles the growing AIDS crisis in New York City from 1981 through 1984, and how badly it was bungled.

It was a harrowing time, and gay activist Larry Kramer’s 1985 mostly autobiographical play is haunting as it conveys the confusion and chaos.

This work is a gripping account of how leaders in the gay community fought an indifferent, inefficient, and ineffective political system that ignored their plight until they couldn’t, as deaths were escalating in alarming way.

With a keen eye on the bigger picture, the company’s artistic director, Gary F. Bell, shrewdly directed principal character Ned Weeks’ journey from angry protestor to frustrated and furious advocate demanding change. It’s not just history, it’s personal.

During the early 1980s, Bell lived in New York City as the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome began decimating a terrified gay population. With the early years of another global pandemic not yet in the rearview mirror, Bell builds on that lack of knowledge and awareness to be relatable.

Many homosexuals were forced to live a closeted life, for fear of retaliation and being ostracized, or fired at work, or target of hate crimes. It was a very different time. And then, as the HIV/AIDS outbreak spread, so much fear and ignorance added fuel to the misunderstandings.

For those who remember living in the shadows 40 years ago, the pain of being unseen, unheard and dismissed during a growing public health crisis is palpable. Others who have been marginalized can identify, too.

Sarjane Alverson and Joey Saunders. Photo by John Lamb

Bell’s lean, cut-to-the-chase presentation focuses on perspective for the look back while being mindful of current parallels so that it feels contemporary and fresh.

In his best work to date, Peirick, a Stray Dog regular, brings an in-your-face intensity to Ned’s mission to make sense of what is happening while confusion reigns in the medical, political, and social circles in his orbit.

He shows how frightened Ned is for those around him, and how his laser-beam attention isn’t immediately shared by peers, much to his dismay. He pushes, he’s abrasive, he’s relentless – and eventually, he rattles the right cages and rallies others to see how the clock is ticking.

Newcomer Joey Saunders plays Felix Turner, a New York Times fashion writer who becomes involved in a serious relationship with Ned. When he is diagnosed with AIDS, how he deals with the decline from symptoms to the illness taking over his life is gut-wrenching and makes it deeply personal.

The other guys view their roles as important vessels, a duty they take seriously, as they all “go there,” daring to plumb emotions for a stunning depth of feeling.

In a dramatic turn as banker Bruce Niles, Jeffrey Wright pours out his anguish to tell how his lover died and the humiliation that followed, while Jon Hey melts down as the overwhelmed Mickey Marcus, frustrated by the lack of results.

It’s impossible not to be moved or not care about these people, to get into their heads and hearts as they confront the biggest health crisis of their time.

Stephen Henley, Jeremy Goldmeier, Stephen Peirick and Jon Hey. Photo by John Lamb

Characters get sick and die. Their lovers, co-workers, friends and family show symptoms and it doesn’t end well. Or those people refuse to accept and believe what is really happening.

Stephen Henley brings compassion to the Southern-style Tommy Boatright and Michael Hodges plays the dual roles of Craig Donner and Grady.

Three portray outsiders that are integral to the story.

A perfectly cast Sarajane Alverson is strong as Dr. Emma Brookner, who is in a wheelchair from childhood polio – a powerful visual. She is a crucial character who delivers the medical findings and sounds alarm bells

Jeremy Goldmeier has the thankless task of being the hard-edged municipal assistant Hiram Keebler and David Wassilak is buttoned-up Ben Weeks, Ned’s distant lawyer brother.

The austere set optimizes a growing set of file boxes as the HIV/AIDS cases surge and death toll mounts. Justin Been handled the scenic design and the sound work, punctuating the heightened emotions with dramatic instrumental music.

Kramer, always demanding, wanted to move the needle on tolerance and acceptance, which is why, 40 years later, this play has a far-reaching impact.

It is always hard to see so much time and energy spent on hate, even in historical context, but through art, there is also a glimmer of hope.

A play this pertinent has expanded its purpose at a time when we need to pay attention, for we must never forget. The organizers of today stand on the shoulders of giants, and Stray Dog is providing an important service to a new generation.

Stray Dog Theatre presents “The Normal Heart” from June 9 to 25, Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., with a Sunday, June 19, matinee at 2 p.m., at The Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee, in Tower Grove East. Tickets are only offered in physically distanced groups of two or four. For more information: www.straydogtheatre.org

Stephen Peirick and Joey Saunders. Photo by John Lamb