A multi-faceted gem of a musical, Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music is realized with utmost skill and elegance in a brilliant new production at Signature Theatre. Director Eric Schaeffer and company strike an enviable balance between sparkle and understatement, reflecting the myriad aspects of longing explored in Sondheim’s uncharacteristically hopeful roundelay of coupling and uncoupling.
Featuring an urbane, Tony-winning book by Hugh Wheeler, the show was inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 comedy, Smiles on a Summer Night. It’s an improbably starry-eyed romance for a filmmaker who claimed he found his own later films too depressing to watch, as well as for Sondheim, known for searingly dark works like Assassins and Sweeney Todd.
Yet, despite an arch comedic streak, the story of conflicted husbands and wives and their would-be partners is plainly sincere about the rush of falling in love. A paean to living without regret, A Little Night Music (★★★★) celebrates the part that lust, romance, infatuation, and passion can play in leading to self-discovery.
The earnest joy of pursuing passion comes through clearly in Bobby Smith’s wonderful performance as well-off attorney Fredrik Egerman. Married to Anne (Nicki Elledge), a virginal 18-year old two decades his junior, Fredrik still longs for the more scintillating connection of body and mind he shared with ex-lover, Desiree Armfeldt (Holly Twyford), a grande dame of the theater.
A strong-willed, well-traveled actress, Desiree is resolved to appear unencumbered by any desire to commit to one man. To herself and to her mother, the sage Madame Leonora Armfeldt (Florence Lacey), Desiree tries to mask her true feelings for Fredrik, and for her other lover, the highly perturbable — and married — Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Will Gartshore).
Twyford is perhaps too opaque illustrating Desiree’s inscrutability when it comes to her suitors. She wears Desiree’s mask of nonchalance stiffly, but when it falls, it shatters with devastating effect. That moment comes with show’s revered centerpiece ballad, “Send in the Clowns.” Twyford, making her D.C. musical theater debut, handles the tune with the pleasing croak and purr of a Stritch or Bacall, successfully captures the song’s wistful emotion.
As the wise-cracking, wheelchair-bound Madame Armfeldt, Lacey is incandescent, warmly maternal towards Desiree’s daughter (Anna Grace Nowalk), yet as shrewd as can be about the foibles of the young, old, and foolish. Madame Armfeldt laments the loss of sense and gentility in the world (circa 1900), but she appears to nurse few regrets. Among this cadre of wishy-washy men and women, that’s the way to live, or to die: free of circumspection.
The characters dare much in order to hold and to keep the wrong partner, then must dare even more to reach the right one. And Signature’s production, like its most comical character, Fredrik’s stridently gloomy son Henrik (Sam Ludwig), wears its heart on its silken sleeves. With understated brilliance, Robert Perdziola’s costumes, Karma Camp’s choreography, Paul Tate Depoo’s brass-accented sets, and Colin K. Bills’s marvelous lighting convey an atmosphere of classic romance. And the gorgeous visual presentation is immeasurably enhanced by Sondheim’s great score.
Musical director Jon Kalbfleisch leads a 13-piece orchestra that renders Sondheim’s complex melodies beautifully, with standout contributions from pianist Jacob Kidder and flautist David Lonkevich. The musicians’ fine playing complements the delightful singing of several performers on stage — particularly, baritone Kevin McAllister in dual roles, and Ludwig, who swings big in playing Henrik’s lovesick anxiousness, but none more so than Tracy Lynn Olivera, drolly enchanting as the Countess Charlotte Malcolm.
While some in the company wrestle with the tempos and phrasing of Sondheim’s witty, reflective lyrics, Olivera knocks home every line, look, and pause. As the show’s chorus of Liebeslieders (or Love songs) reminds us, “Perpetual anticipation is good for the heart.” So, with glad hearts and much anticipation, D.C. audiences can look forward to the next opportunity to see the talented Olivera take the musical theater stage.
A Little Night Music runs until October 8 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington. Tickets are $40 to $99. Call (703) 820-9771, or visit sigtheatre.org.
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