Sondheim’s ‘A Little Night Music’ sets the stage at the Players Guild of Dearborn

Photos by Sue Suchyta
Set designer Jennifer Maiseloff (right) of West Bloomfield, who earned a graduate degree in Theatre Design at the Royal Academy for Dramatic Arts in London, discusses the set construction for “A Little Night Music” with John Sczomak of Dearborn, president of the Players Guild of Dearborn.

With Sondheim’s Tony Award-winning musical “A Little Night Music” opening a four-weekend run Friday at the Players Guild of Dearborn, cast and crew are busy adding final touches to the ambitious undertaking.

The show runs weekends through May 19 for 12 performances. Friday and Saturday shows are 8 p.m., with 2:30 p.m. Sunday matinees.

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Middle-aged lawyer Fredrik Egerman takes his young still-virgin bride Anne to a play starring his former middle-aged mistress, Desiree Armfeldt. When the two rekindle their affair, it angers Desiree’s current lover, Count Malcolm, and prompts his wife, Charlotte, and Anne to plot against Desiree. Meanwhile, Fredrik’s son Henrik is madly and hopelessly in love with his stepmother, Anne.

The couples collide in a weekend party at the country estate of Madame Armfeldt, former consort of a king, and Desiree’s mother, who is raising Desiree’s illegitimate daughter, Fredrika.

Petra, a lusty maid, who seduces Henrik, and Frid, a full service butler, add to the salacious mix.

To create a set equal to Sondheim’s romantic romp and ambitious musical score, director Harold Jurkiewicz convinced scenic designer Jennifer Maiseloff, who earned an master’s degree in set design at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, to volunteer her talent to design and oversee the construction of the dreamlike yet ambitious set, which includes a richly-appointed country estate.

“I like Ingmar Bergman, so I’m using his film ‘Smiles of a Summer Night,’ going back to that Swedish film more than anything, to capture that essence of the show,” Jurkiewicz said.

Jurkiewicz said he was entranced by the original set design when he saw the show in 1973 in the original Tony Award-winning Broadway version.

Maiseloff met Jurkiewicz at the Jewish Ensemble Theatre, where he is a stage manager, and where she designed sets for Mamet’s “Race” and more recently for “Area 51.”

“Harold’s awesome – he’s brilliant,” Maiseloff said. “I said yes right away. I have seen his ‘Anne Frank.’ He’s a great director – I was excited to collaborate with him.”

She said her lifestyle as a set designer is such that she is constantly working, and she loves it.

“The shows are big, the sets are huge, and it has to be done,” she said. “This is normal for me, and it is fun.”

She said she has lost track of how many hours she has put into the set, and thinks about it even when she is sleeping.

“I come here early in the morning to come paint, or I stay here late to paint,” Maiseloff said. “I already see how it is going to look.”

She said the show’s challenges include the touring cars, being in a garden and being in a mansion with elaborate scenes, and she describes the scene changes within “A Little Night Music” as very fluid.

She said the neo-classical, romantic work of Albert Edelfelt, a 19th century Swedish-speaking Finnish painter, inspired her.

“Whenever I design a play I research like crazy, and I just kind of get into that world,” Maiseloff said. “Sometimes painters and artists inspire me with that world – or a color inspires me.”

She describes “A Little Night Music” as realistic yet playful.

“It’s impressionistic,” she said. “The colors help out with it. With the scenery you kind of have a romantic kind of fluid world.”

She said the colors set the mood for the dreamlike scenes around the actors, and it is exciting to see it now brought to life on the Guild’s stage.

After seeing two of the sets that the JET hired Maiseloff to create, Jurkiewicz knew he wanted her to make the set for “A Little Night Music” at the Guild.

“She is very good at re-creating her drawings with precision to what she’s given you with the design,” Jurkiewicz said.

He said he wanted a professional set designer at the helm because he feels “A Little Night Music” is a huge show to undertake.

“It’s grand, and it is operatic in its tone,” Jurkiewicz said. “If I was going to do it, (the set design) needed to have the whole scope of the show.”

He added that the movement of the set pieces – the “ballet” that takes place from scene to scene – is a very challenging aspect.

He said Maiseloff is also an exceptional scenic painter, which he needed to set the tone of the play with the birch trees in the Swedish woods and fields. Helen Liljegren, a longtime Guild member and another talented scenic artist, is lending her talents to the scene painting.

He hopes audiences are impressed to see two turn of the century-looking cars roll onstage.

“I think the whole 3-D sort of woods set — the Swedish birch trees and all — are gorgeous,” Jurkiewicz said.

He said the number of Guild members who have volunteered their time to construct and paint the set has been overwhelming, including people who have not worked on set construction in years.

“This was one that gave them all something to take pride in themselves that they put it together,” Jurkiewicz said.

Tom Sparrow, one of the assistants to the director, said Maiseloff is “absolutely fabulous.”

“She also appears to be tireless,” Sparrow said. “She’s been here 24/7. I usually arrive at the Guild first. When I get here, she’s here.”

He said Maiseloff has designed a fabulous set.

“These (construction crew) can’t say no to her for some reason,” Sparrow said.

He said the set is complicated because the pieces are large, because the show demands a “grand feeling.” He mentioned a headboard for the bed that goes up to the ceiling, and wonderful end tables.

“This whole woods scene that she’s painted is out of this world,” he said. “And there are two cars that she designed, turn-of-the-century touring cars.”

He feels the set changes will impress audiences as well, including Madame Armfeldt’s mansion, which he describes as a cutout, representing the outline of a grand chateau.