The moon supposedly shines three times (for the young, the fools and the old) in Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s masterful musical A Little Night Music. True or not, audiences should be smiling many more times during director Eric Schaeffer’s lovely, well-balanced revival of the show at Virginia’s Signature Theatre. It nicely captures the more farcical and humorous elements of the work (which was suggested by Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night), while also doing justice to its more bittersweet tone.
Admittedly, it’s far from the best sung production I’ve ever seen (some of the cast can’t reach the proper notes), but Sondheim’s musicality still shines through. Indeed, the unusual score (much of it written in ¾ waltz time) is quite gorgeous and the lyrics consistently bright and witty – especially the numbers penned for the Liebeslieders, five superb vocalists (including the excellent Kevin McAllister, who here doubles as the butler Frid) who act as commentators upon not just the proceedings, but the frailties of human relationships.
Take those of renowned Scandinavian actress Desiree Armfeldt (Holly Twyford), tired of her now less-than-stellar career and ready to finally settle down into some form of domesticity – or at least that’s what comes into her mind when her old flame, Frederik Egerman (the absolutely superb Bobby Smith), reenters her life. However, Frederick, a successful lawyer (and unbeknownst to him, the father of Desiree’s teenaged daughter Frederika) is now married to the sweet but silly Anne (an excellent Nicki Elledge), an 18-year-old virgin, while still longing for his former paramour.
Moreover, Desiree is involved with the highly jealous, preening, dimwitted military man Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (a pitch-perfect Will Gartshore, in very strong voice), who seemingly cares little how his affair with Desiree is affecting his unhappy wife Charlotte (the excellent Tracy Lynn Olivera), a woman who is as quick with a barb aimed at others as she is with a self-deprecating remark shot at herself.
Things come to head at a weekend party thrown by Desiree at the country mansion owned by her mother, a former courtesan (brilliantly portrayed by Florence Lacey, who makes a three-act play out of her solo number, “Liaisons”), where eventually all the proper pairings come into place. For Anne, it slowly becomes obvious she is just as attracted to Frederik’s overly sensitive and somewhat confused son Henrik (a memorable Sam Ludwig), who has been studying for the priesthood, as he is to her. Meanwhile, for the Egerman’s lusty maid Petra (an appealing Maria Rizzo), it’s a tumble in the grass with Frid, just one of her many celebrations of “what passes by.” As for Desiree and Frederik, you will have to wait until the final moments to find out.
For DC theater veterans, the raisons d'être of this production is that it marks the musical theater debut of Twyford, a two-time Helen Hayes Award winner equally adept at drama and comedy. Unsurprisingly, she’s a splendid Desiree, glamorous when required, but ultimately earthy. Yes, this Desiree can act offstage when need be, but she’s a genuine woman, mother and daughter. And while she is at times a “fool,” she’s also quite wise, especially when it comes to her own position in life. Twyford’s singing voice is pleasant enough; still, I would listen to her version of Sondheim’s masterwork “Send in the Clowns” endlessly, as Twyford perfectly and precisely limns Desiree’s predicament.
Schaeffer’s staging, aided by Karma Camp’s choreography, is fairly minimal, yet often similar to other, better-known productions. (His biggest change is that for “Liaisons,” Madame Armfeldt is not sitting in her wheelchair, but rather standing on a cane and in front of Desiree’s messy dressing room, perhaps to hammer home the song’s point.) But a director needn’t be original with A Little Night Music. They need only to trust in this splendidly written and conceived musical for it to be a beaming success.