Director/choreographer Matthew Brennan is gearing up for a kind of “Sondheim hat trick” at Dexter’s Encore Theatre.
In 2016, Brennan helmed (and performed as Lee Harvey Oswald in) Encore’s award-winning rendition of “Assassins”; in 2017, he labored for months to bring his searing, unique vision for “Sweeney Todd” to life on Encore’s modest stage (and earned accolades and awards again); and now, he’s running rehearsals for “A Little Night Music,” experimenting and making adjustments.
“We’re doing a run with British dialects tonight, just to ramp up the comedy of manners,” said Brennan. “But it’s working so well, I’m thinking maybe we’ll leave it in, or at least leave a little of that flavor. I always thought it was so weird when (‘Night Music’ productions) did that. I mean, I get that it makes it feel more otherworldly. But the story takes place in Sweden!”
Indeed, Hugh Wheeler (book) and Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) adapted the show’s story from a film (“Smiles of a Summer Night”) made by one of Sweden’s most iconic artists, Ingmar Bergman.
“Night Music” focuses on a middle aged actress (Desiree) who, while touring with a show, runs into a former lover (Fredrik) and his much younger trophy wife (Anne). Passion reignites between Desiree and Fredrik, but when Desiree’s mother hosts a weekend in the country – inviting family members, lovers, servants and spouses – love lines between several people get hopelessly crossed.
“This is like the ‘Dallas’ of musical theater, or ‘Real Housewives of Stockholm,’” said Brennan. “We’re just drawn to watching people who seem to have it all act like they’re at a frat party, where, by the end of the night, you see things like a grown woman who’s in tears because a guy danced with somebody else.”
Though Brennan has established a bit of a reputation at Encore for developing unique, singular approaches to Sondheim shows, he said that with regard to ‘Night Music,’ “I feel like this show should just be what it is, so we’ve mostly stuck with the traditional stuff. If anything, we’re bringing out more of the show’s comedy – the contrast of these elegant, well-mannered people acting like buffoons. … As a kid, I found (‘Night Music’) devastating and sad and terrible, because everyone’s lying to each other, and marriages are falling apart. But when I revisited it as an adult, … I just thought, ‘Oh, this is hilarious!’”
For Brennan, that’s just as much a credit to Wheeler, the show’s book writer, as it is to the far-more-famous Sondheim. (One of Sondheim’s all-time biggest commercial hits, “Send in the Clowns,” is part of “Night Music”’s score.)
“I give Hugh Wheeler a lot of credit on this one,” said Brennan. “All the music is beautiful and smart, of course, but man, if (Wheeler) didn’t put together an honest and funny and sad sort of dissection of love, it just wouldn’t work like it does. … With this show, everyone can relate to somebody on some level. … It’s just a really frank examination of what love does for us, and what we do for love; but it’s also a crash course in how to laugh at ourselves and our pasts.”
“A Little Night Music” plays at The Encore Theatre, at 3126 Broad St. in Dexter, from September 20-October 14. For showtimes and ticket information, visit www.theencoretheatre.org, or call 734-268-6200.