A Little Night Music, Porchlight Theatre, at the Theatre Building, and Pacific Overtures, Chicago Shakespeare Theater. With its tender, hummable songs and wry comic tale of sexual intrigue and midlife romance, composer Stephen Sondheim and director Harold Prince’s A Little Night Music–scripted by Hugh Wheeler, based on Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night–was a 1973 Broadway hit. Rather than repeat themselves with another love story, Sondheim and Prince followed up in 1976 with Pacific Overtures, about the socioeconomic revolution that followed Commodore Perry’s 1853 visit to Japan. Written by Wheeler and John Weidman, Pacific Overtures was a lavish flop that cemented Sondheim’s reputation as uncompromisingly uncommercial. But it’s every bit as witty and, in the right hands, engaging as its predecessor.
Happily, these two masterworks are running simultaneously in thoughtful, intimate productions. A Little Night Music is a likable low-budget effort. The non-Equity cast, directed by L. Walter Stearns with musical guidance from Eugene Dizon, never convince us they’re fin de siecle Swedish haute bourgeoisie; they play the comedy a little too broadly, recalling sitcom more than classic farce. But they sing well (Megan Van De Hey’s ferocious “The Miller’s Son” is a standout) and find touching emotional nuances in the bittersweet story.
Pacific Overtures, meanwhile, is a triumph. Eschewing visual spectacle, director Gary Griffin employs a formal, minimalist approach perfectly suited to the show’s key influences, Kabuki and haiku. The superb all-Equity multiracial ensemble–Kevin Gudahl, Christopher Mark Peterson, Jeff Dumas, Richard Manera, Nathaniel Stampley, Michael Hagiwara, Anthony Hite, Roderick Peeples, Neil Friedman, and Joseph Anthony Foronda–perform on a bare deck surrounded by the audience, wearing only black pants and tunics adorned with the occasional sash or flower. The staging (with dances by Marc Robin and combat choreography by Robin McFarquhar) is wondrously precise and economical. And under Thomas Murray’s musical direction the score, with its canny use of Asian idioms and intricate musical and verbal cross rhythms, is richly sung and played. The result is riveting theater–and a thought-provoking illustration of how a society sure of its own righteousness and invulnerability can be reshaped, even undone in a moment.