What but the genius of Stephen Sondheim could turn the labyrinth of Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smiles on a Summer Night” into the musical “A Little Night Music”? And trust the wizardry of Eric Schaeffer and company to bring it gloriously alive on stage. Signature Theatre blossoms as it meets the kaleidoscopic range of artistic challenges, and the night smiles on every one of them.
Isn’t it rich? Fredrik Egerman’s affair with the actress Desiree Armfeldt resulted in a daughter that he doesn’t know about; meanwhile, in a rash attempt to recover his lost youth, he has married the eighteen-year-old Anne, a porcelain doll of a girl who sits on his lap and teases him as she would an uncle and refuses to sleep with him.
His dyspeptic son, Henrik (by a former marriage) is a seminary student who disapproves of everything – himself most of all for falling in love with his father’s young wife. Fredric visits Desiree only to get caught by her present lover, Carl-Magnus, a bellowing sort who lectures his wife on the importance of fidelity in women. And Desiree’s mother, a grand dame who was once courted by Europe’s loftiest titles, decries the lack of flair in modern liaisons. Behind the scenes, Petra, the worldly young maid, flits from one lusty celebration to the next.
Don’t you love farce?
Sondheim himself said that this was a show about “people wasting time”; at least in 1900 Sweden in the season of perpetual sunset, they waste time with extraordinary panache. With thematic roots stretching back to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “A Little Night Music” is one continuous waltz through the more forgivable follies and delusions of human beings.
Under Eric Schaeffer’s direction, this dream cast blooms with elegance and wit. Act I introduces the fools on whom the night is said to smile and reveals the petty discontents that keep them nipping at life’s heels. Act II brings them together under one roof where life – or perhaps Fate – playing the clown, treats them to a metaphorical pie in the face. One by one they trip on the cumulative result of their own foolishness only to discover real happiness offering a hand up.
No casting decision in this show was less than inspired, but the real triumph is the pairing of Bobby Smith as Fredrik, middle-aged, discontented lawyer, and Holly Twyford, dazzling as the actress Desiree. Smith brings a touch of dignity to the pathos and humor of his no-fool-like-an-old-fool role, and his interactions with the lovely Anne, (Nicki Elledge) his infuriatingly chaste wife, only accentuate his desperation. The braiding together of the complicated arrangement, “Now,” “Soon,” and “Later” with the dismal youth, Henrik, (Sam Ludwig) is one of Sondheim’s more spectacular musical juggling acts.
Bursting the stage at its seams with each entrance is Will Gartshore as the Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, the ultimate male chauvinist, a human dartboard if Fate be a woman. How else to play this character except to the hilt – and Gartshore succeeds in making us love to hate him, even as he solemnly warbles “In Praise of Women.” Why his devoted wife Charlotte (the fabulous Tracy Lynn Olivera) remains devoted is hard to fathom, but Ms. Olivera leaks resentment into some of the driest, funniest lines of the night. That her dagger-pointed wit is merely protecting an aching heart is apparent in her duet with Anne, “Every Day a Little Death.”
Wheelchair-bound Madame Armfeldt, played with aristocratic gravity by Florence Lacey, is a sometime Philosopher Queen who doesn’t quite know what to make of finding herself old, infirm, and without lovers. Having profited handsomely from a series of status-enhancing affairs throughout Europe, she now has only her mansion, her granddaughter, and her solitaire game. Her song “Liaisons” gives vent with poignancy and humor to her acerbic view of the world.
And they all have one thing in common: Desiree Armfeldt. Scoring the popular Holly Twyford in this role was a casting coup, for she delivers the full battery of her magnetic stage presence and comedic timing to this enticing character. “You Must Meet My Wife” sung with Fredrik brims with insouciance, but the show’s best known number, “Send In The Clowns”, reaches all of its heartbreaking potential delivered in Twyford’s unique, crushed glass voice.
Only one person revels shamelessly in the abundance of her appeal. Petra, Anne’s maid, is only shocked when people don’t take advantage of sex. Maria Rizzo brings lusty joie de vivre to her part and sums up the predicament of her life’s station in “The Miller’s Son.”
Robert Perdziola has dressed the cast in turn of the century lines with most of the ladies in sandy rose and lace. Desiree is the exception, of course, in rich, bead-encrusted fabrics. There is a porcelain, play house quality to the characters which accents the fragile, superficial surfaces overlaying their turbulent interiors – breakable dolls, every one.
Paul Depoo’s elegantly spare set and Colin Bills’ lights provide in swift moving area staging just the backdrop for a time of year when night never fully comes and the sun never completely sets. For characters who hope beyond reason and love without reward, that anticipation sums up Madame Armfeldt’s pensive conclusion that “What you want so rarely happens.”
Maggie Lawrence is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. She is a retired English and drama teacher.
Want to go?
WHAT: “A Little Night Music”, By Stephen Sondheim
WHERE: Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, Va.
CALL: (703) 820-9771 or visit www.sigtheatre.org
PLAYING THROUGH Oct. 8