SHU students to make ‘A Little Night Music’ at SOPAC

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SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — When it came time to choose the next play for Seton Hall Theatre to perform, producer Peter Reader and musical director Jason Tramm knew they wanted a challenge for their students. Specifically, they hoped to push their young actors to the limits of both their dramatic and musical talents. So they turned to one of the most famous productions from one of the most iconic composers in the annals of theater history — Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” — and never looked back.

Now, the students are ready to perform the musical about the entangled love lives of a group who meet one summer night, from April 21 through April 24, at the South Orange Performing Arts Center. The journey to the stage was far from easy. As Tramm explained, Sondheim songs are always taxing on the performer, and many opera companies take on the show, an indication of just how strong a singer has to be to master the material. But fortunately for the theater group, the musical director said the actors have enough talent to meet the demands.

“We’ve got some wonderful vocal students,” Tramm told the News-Record prior to a rehearsal for the show. “The kids have really performed well, and we have a strong pool of talent this year. I feel that they’re all ready to jump in on this one. It’s going to be a beautiful production.”

Reader agreed that he could see the students grow more confident in their performances through the weeks of preparation, but acknowledged that it was a challenging production for all. Aside from the vocal demands, he said the actors had to get used to Sondheim’s rhythmic phrasing, a signature of the composer that he said is often difficult for singers.

“It’s not an easy kind of rhythm to follow,” Reader told the News-Record prior to the rehearsal. “They’re sometimes even singing against the music, which is what Sondheim likes in terms of that competition between the voice and the instruments and how they play off of each other.

“The instrumentation isn’t underscoring the singers, it’s complementing the singers,” he said, adding that this can really be seen in the quintet chorus’ songs. “So the singers really have to be on top of it to sing and play off the music.”

Additionally, Reader said it was a challenge for the college-aged actors to get into the minds of their characters of people significantly older than themselves. The cast of characters from “A Little Night Music” runs the gamut from the elderly Madame Armfeldt looking wistfully back on her life to the middle-aged Frederik Egerman, who is torn between his 18-year-old wife and his lover from years before. Clearly, the Seton Hall students playing the roles lack similar life experiences on which to base their performances.

Devin McGuire is entirely different from his part — the arrogant and obnoxious Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm — which he said made it a fun role to play. It was also tough, McGuire said, because it was hard to relate to such a man. But in analyzing the part, he came to an understanding of how to portray the character.

“He’s so much older but he’s so immature he’s almost like a child, and that’s where the paradox lies,” McGuire told the News-Record before taking the stage. “It’s not easy (to play him), but it’s definitely not impossible. If I can get a laugh out of the audience, then I’m doing something right.”

“A Little Night Music” is actually McGuire’s first and last musical for Seton Hall Theatre, as he will graduate in a few weeks. Though he has performed in cabarets as well as the university’s choir and orchestra, he said he was glad to have the opportunity to participate in a show like this with his friends and learn from stage director Regan McKenzie.

Plus, McGuire pointed out that the experience has helped prepare him for his goal of becoming a music educator after graduation.

“In order to be a good music teacher, you first need to be a good musician and you need to be able to perform under high-pressure circumstances and you need to be able to entertain audiences,” McGuire said. “So it’s really just practicing what I preach.”

McGuire’s castmate and fellow senior Gabriella Markey, on the other hand, intends to continue performing professionally after she graduates. And she has received quite the education for doing so by playing the role of Desiree Armfeldt, the world-weary fallen actress who has been portrayed in the past by stage legends such as Bernadette Peters and Judi Dench. Markey said it has been a “wonderful challenge” to figure out how to play someone who, as an actress, pretends to be someone she is not around others to hide her true self. Even more creatively stimulating is getting the chance to show the character development as Desiree slowly removes that mask to own who she really is, she said.

Markey said that especially on display when Desiree reflects on her regrets in the musical’s most famous number “Send in the Clowns,” which she described as one of her favorite parts of the play.

“During the whole show you see the character Desiree Armfeldt as a character,” Markey said before starting to rehearse. “But ‘Send in the Clowns’ is when you see her become very raw and very real. It’s difficult because by the end of the song you almost are in tears because of how much sympathy and empathy you have for her. But it’s so beautiful to be able to share that with the audience. It’s something that so many people can feel and connect to.”

Connecting with the rest of the cast is another reason working on “A Little Night Music” has been so special for Markey. She lauded the other actors as simply “incredible,” adding that their dedication to their roles shows in their performances. Yet it is everyone’s relationship offstage that will really make a difference, she said.

“The chemistry between all of us is just like literally working with a team of really good friends,” Markey said, pointing out that such a bond helps when it is time to perform. “There are some scenes that can get a little bit uncomfortable, and having a friend next to you makes it fun and easy rather than intimidating.”

From a director’s perspective, Tramm also said working with the cast has been a very enjoyable experience. Coming from a professional stage music background — he currently serves as artistic director of the MidAtlantic Opera in addition to his job as Seton Hall’s director of choral activities — he said working with students instead of professionals is very exciting because he can make an impact on their development and see their growth as performers. To witness that “lightbulb moment” when the students connect with the material and make it their own makes the whole process worthwhile, he said.

And Tramm thinks audiences will delight in watching Seton Hall Theatre’s production of “A Little Night Music” as much as he did in being part of it.

“These are wonderful young artists who are really some fantastic people,” Tramm said. “It’s an enduringly popular play for a reason, and I think anyone who comes will really enjoy the production.”

Admission to “A Little Night Music” is free, though reservations are recommended. For information, call 973-313-2787 or visit http://www.sopacnow.org/a-little-night-music/.

Photos by Sean Quinn

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