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Extreme Musical 

Kalliope pumps up the intensity with A Little Night Music.

In almost every Roadrunner cartoon, there's a moment when Wile E. Coyote is holding a package from the Acme Company close to his face and wondering whether he should open it. Of course, he does, and after shaking off the explosion that's turned his dome into a charred stump, he's back on the chase again. That's a bit like going to see a big musical at Kalliope Stage, where they mount enormously powerful theatrical fare on a teeny platform that's so close to the audience, it feels as if the performers have been strapped to your head. Frankly, it's an acquired taste. But, like Wile E., you may find yourself strangely addicted and coming back for more.

This time around, the work in question is A Little Night Music, the witty and challenging show with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler. Set in Sweden in 1914, we peek into the upstairs-downstairs lives of people lusting after one thing -- and it ain't herring fritters. At the center of the sensual storm is Fredrik, a middle-aged lawyer entangled in a sexless 11-month marriage to an 18-year-old sprite named Ann (bubbly Kimberly Koljat), who is the secret obsession of Fredrik's Calvinist-strict son, Henrik (played with morose monomania by Brad Herbst). The plot complications multiply faster than rabbits on Levitra, as horny Fredrik seeks to bed Desiree, an old flame and a famed actress, even as her boy toy, the low-wattage Carl-Magnus, is cheating on his wife, Charlotte.

As with virtually all Kalliope productions, the assembled voices range from good to spectacular. Although Frederick Hamilton looks a bit young for Fredrik (he could pass for Val Kilmer's second cousin), he is charmingly libidinous. In a beautifully nuanced scene with Marla Berg's Desiree, they share knowing glances and lickerish body language until they jump under the sheets. Berg is every inch the diva, and her rendition of the show's most famous tune, "Send In the Clowns," is achingly felt. As Carl-Magnus, Tony Lehmenkuler has a deep and robust baritone, but tends to overcook his dim-witted dialogue, while Laurel Held Posey as maid Petra cadges many laughs, teasing uptight Henrik with a deftly placed feather duster.

But the drop-dead-wonderful performance in this production is turned in by Kathleen Huber as Desiree's aristocratic but candidly acquisitive mother. Clipping her words with such crisp enunciation that the edges fairly gleam, she explains in the lovely and trenchant "Liaisons" the way times have changed and how she scored mansions and yachts through amorous entanglements with wealthy men ("It's but a pleasurable means/To a measurable end"). Huber is worth the price of admission -- and maybe a couple extra bucks on the way out.

This production also benefits from a neatly efficient set and opulent costumes, both designed by Russ Borski. Although director Paul F. Gurgol tends toward the florid, he sure can assemble some goosebump-inducing talent. That's why we keep opening that damn package.

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