Memories of Melody Top: Remembering Milwaukee’s Summer Stock Theatre

Because national tours of his musicals bypassed Milwaukee for larger markets like nearby Chicago, the music and lyrics of Stephen Sondheim were introduced to local audiences through original productions of COMPANY, FOLLIES and A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC at Melody Top during the 1970s. His opera-like masterpiece, SWEENEY TODD, was also considered for a Top showing in 1983 until it was determined that so many musical cues would be difficult in an arena setting. Here is a recap of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (1976) to celebrate Sondheim's 90th birthday on Sunday, March 22, 2020.

Photos from A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, August 3-15, 1976

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A Little Night Music at Melody Top

Zoya Leporska, with her back to the camera, as Madame Armfeldt; Earl Wrightson as Fredrik Egerman; Lois Hunt as Desiree Armfeldt; Holland Taylor as Countess Charlotte Malcolm; and David Holliday as Count Carl-Magnus Malcom, all pictured in the elegant Armfeldt dining room (act two, scene four) of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (1976). Photo from the collection of Nancy McCloud.

Unusual Summer Fare

by Jay Joslyn, Milwaukee Sentinel, Wednesday, August 4, 1976

Stephen Sondheim's A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC took Broadway by storm with its elegant grace and fancy. It recreated the beauty of the past within a cloud of astringent lyrics swirling at the core of a waltz.

Frankly, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC isn't readily identifiable as summer theater fare. It isn't boisterous. It isn't brainless. It isn't all sound and fury.

But director-designer Stuart Bishop has made the show for the Melody Top Theater. The production that he and producer Martin Wiviott have put together is a jewel of great value – a treat for the eye, the ear and the heart.

Featured is that incomparable team of Earl Wrightson and Lois Hunt, giving their patented style to the roles of the foolish, aging roué and the evergreen courtesan. Sondheim might have had them in mind when he was writing the show. It fits their popular AN EVENING WITH… format so well.

Bay View's wandering troubadour, David Holliday, waxes eloquent and unctuous as the military stereotype while Holland Taylor proves a fine foil to his pomposity.

David Gary's overwrought seminarian, Susan Rush's spunky chambermaid and Alice Cannon's spoiled-doll wife give a good account for the young people.

However, Hugh Wheeler's book comes terribly close to being a mere soap opera, which some of Bishop's direction resembles. There are more potent features to the production.

One of these qualities is found in the singing of the chorus, made up of Robert Alton, Didi Hitt, Joan Susswein, Jay Lowman and Linda Poser.

Their melodious comments on the whimsical happenings have been set by choreographer James Smock into a fluid dream of colorful Jan Valentine costumes.

A Little Night Music at Melody Top

The Lieder Singers (Mr. Erlanson, Jay Lowman; Mrs. Segstrom, Linda Poser; Mrs. Anderssen, Joan Susswein; Mr. Lindquist, Robert Alton; and Mrs. Nordstrom, Didi Hitt) photographed in their turn-of-the-century costumes on a multi-tiered set for A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (1976). Lois Hunt, as Desiree Armfeldt, is pictured in the foreground wearing a hat. Photo from the collection of Nancy McCloud.

NIGHT MUSIC Hits and Misses

By Michael H. Drew, Milwaukee Journal, Wednesday, August 4, 1976

Until Tuesday night, the Melody Top has shied away from the 1973 Broadway hit A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. Perhaps the reticence was justified, since its subtle charms are as evanescent and elusive as, well, "the smiles of a summer night."

Not coincidentally, the latter is the title of the Ingmar Bergman film adapted into NIGHT MUSIC by two certified Broadway geniuses, director Harold Prince and composer Stephen Sondheim, with help from librettist Hugh Wheeler. The challenges of mounting this off-beat and whimsical chamber operetta in a 2,100-seat tent were frequently surmounted in the opening of a two-week run before a near capacity crowd.

Director Stuart Bishop's foremost continuing dilemma is getting his troupe to project Sondheim's intricately sophisticated lyrics over 360 degrees. The lyrics are a principal charm in a show that throws together several romantic Swedes for a weekend of overlapping flirtations.

With few exceptions, the melodies are, well, a very little night music. Even with his brass section replaced by strings, including, gadzooks, a harp in the tiny pit, Don Yap's orchestra kept submerging the clever rhymes. More projection and ar-tic-u-la-tion from all would help.

Bravely substituting a preoccupied hesitance for his usual command, Earl Wrightson turned in a thoughtful portrayal of the aging lawyer roué. As his paramour, Lois Hunt fully exploited one of her choicest Top roles, catching every dram of self-mocking poignance in "Send in the Clowns."

As another of her lovers, ex-Milwaukeean David Holliday was perfectly pompous, and his ringing tenor resounded bigger than ever. His posturing count sometimes veered into caricature, following the lead of his countess, Holland Taylor, playing to the tent flaps, and pulling laughs.

With songs beneath her range and acid putdowns beyond her ken, Zoya Leporska (Madame Armfeldt) had the opposite problem. As Wrightson's young wife, Alice Cannon's relentless exuberance grew repetitive. But David Gary found the right scale for son Henrik's troubled ministerial student and Susan Rush (a maid) was typically reliable.

Yap's chorus (especially Robert Alton and Didi Hitt) was eminently helpful, as were Jan Valentine's lovely costumes.

A Little Night Music at Melody Top

Lois Hunt and Earl Wrightson were captured in rehearsal for this publicity photo during one of their many Top appearances, probably KISS ME, KATE (1972). Photo from the webmaster's collection.

A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC Cast of Characters

Mr. Lindquist:Robert Alton
Mrs. Nordstrom:Didi Hitt
Mrs. Anderssen:Joan Susswein
Mr. Erlanson:Jay Lowman
Mrs. Segstrom:Linda Poser
Fredrika Armfeldt:Heather Stanford
Madame Armfeldt:Zoya Leporska
Frid:Cris Groenendaal
Henrik Egerman:David Gary
Anne Egerman:Alice Cannon
Fredrik Egerman:Earl Wrightson
Petra:Susan Rush
Desiree Armfeldt:Lois Hunt
Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm:David Holliday
Countess Charlotte Malcolm:Holland Taylor

The Ensemble: Judith Ann Conte, Eddie Dudek, Tracy Friedman, Barrett Hong, Andy Hostettler, Nancy McCloud, Roy Neuner, Barry Thomas, Jan Wahl.

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