It hit Randy Reyes at a production meeting for “A Little Night Music,” the summer show by Mu Performing Arts. Budgetary stuff came up, and everyone looked at Reyes.
“I thought, Oh, yeah, that’s me,” said Reyes, who is in his first year as artistic director of the Asian-American troupe.
As he often is, Reyes will be on stage as Mu’s leading actor when “Night Music” opens at Park Square Theatre on Friday. Unlike previous years, though, Reyes can’t just head home after rehearsal and curl up with his script and ponder the character he is playing. He’s the boss, the producer, the man who signs checks and bears the weight of the entire staging.
“Randy is an actor in the show, but he is the artistic director of the company, and he gives feedback to me,” said Rick Shiomi, who is directing “Night Music” as a freelancer now, after more than 20 years as Mu’s artistic director. “I’ve been telling people that the big difference for me this time is that I don’t have to drive the truck to load in the set and make sure everything is painted.”
Mu’s summer musicals have become something to eagerly anticipate in the warm-weather months. Shiomi has become a fan himself. He hadn’t harbored ambitions as a musical theater director before he worked as assistant director with Gary Gisselman on “Pacific Overtures” in 2004. Mu then developed the musical “The Walleye Kid” and followed up with “Flower Drum Song,” “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Into the Woods” and last year’s “The Mikado,” which was done with Skylark Opera.
“I did my apprenticeship with Gary and Jon [Cranney, who directed “Walleye Kid”],” Shiomi said. “From that, I developed my style.”
This year’s “A Little Night Music” is the third time Mu has gone to the Stephen Sondheim shelf. Shiomi candidly said that just like “Pacific Overtures” and “Into the Woods,” he took time to warm up to the musical.
Sondheim can be like that. Skim the surface and you find densely layered lyrics and cool dispassion in the music. Dig deeper, though, and Sondheim’s mind and heart reveal themselves — albeit with a taste for irony.
“He has a sardonic wit about human behavior, but in ‘Night Music’ there is optimism and belief in relationships,” Shiomi said.
The piece hit Broadway in 1973 and won Tonys for score, book and best musical. It’s adapted from the Ingmar Bergman film “Smiles of a Summer Night.” In the Swedish countryside, romances and rivalries spin into crises. Reyes plays Fredrik Egerman, a successful lawyer in a loveless marriage with a young woman (Suzie Juul). When more personalities become involved — including Fredrik’s former inamorata, Desiree (Sheena Janson) — the long summertime Nordic night holds some surprises.
Shiomi, working with music director Jason Hansen and choreographer Penelope Freeh, said he has tried to bring a kinetic energy to the production, where movement becomes part of the storytelling and dance exists for its own purpose but also as a comment on character.
“I want this to be a dance-movement musical, not a stand-and-deliver musical,” he said.
After setting “Into the Woods” in Asian folk tales and “The Mikado” in an Asian milieu, Shiomi will leave this show in Sweden, with a “much lighter touch.”
New boss similar to old boss
Shiomi said he likes being able to focus strictly on directing this time out. And the only change in his relationship with Reyes is that “he’s the boss now. I used to be the boss and now he is.”
Does the actor offer suggestions for what his character should or should not do?
“Yes, but he’s always done that,” Shiomi said. “That’s what actors and directors do all the time.”
Reyes said that most of the preparation period felt familiar for him, except for moments when he realized that “Oh, shoot, that’s me, isn’t it? I have to answer for that.”
His working relationships, though, have been unchanged. It is not unprecedented for an actor to be the artistic director. Here in the Twin Cities, Bain Boehlke, artistic director of the Jungle, often goes onstage. At the old Jeune Lune, the artistic leaders blended roles in all aspects of productions.
“I can’t only think about my acting role,” Reyes said. “I’m thinking about the whole arc, and I have to be more present.”
Looking to the future, Reyes said he will have a deeper understanding of the demands as artistic director and how that might affect his acting.
“If it’s too big, I might not do the acting part,” he said. “Acting is something I will always do, but it depends on the project because I’ve learned a lot from this production.”
Asked if it’s kind of cool to be the guy in charge, Reyes laughed.
“I haven’t been at that point yet,” he said. “I’ve been inside it too much to reflect. But I enjoy being able to make decisions, and I love being responsible for things. I do enjoy all aspects of it.”