‘A Little Night Music’
Award-winning production on stage at BU’s Huntington Theatre
Time and its passing is a theme that ripples through the 1973 musical “A Little Night Music,” from its opening songs to the sublime anthem to regret, “Send in the Clowns.”
An elegant farce deepened by grace notes of wisdom, the romantic comedy is composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s take on the classic 1955 film by Ingmar Bergman, “Smiles of a Summer Night.” Both take place at a country estate in turn-of-the-century Sweden, on the night of the summer solstice, when the sun barely sets at all.
As in Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the solstice is a night of transformation. After a night of romantic capers and follies, mismatched couples find their rightful mates. But “A Little Night Music” casts its wry eye on human choices and second chances rather than magic.
In the Huntington Theatre Company’s shimmering production of this award-sweeping musical, on stage through Oct. 11 at the Boston University Theatre, the musical’s many moving parts interlock with music-box precision and artfulness. In the process, heart meets art.
Directed by Peter DuBois, the Huntington’s artistic director, the production is faithful to the book by Hugh Wheeler and music and lyrics by Sondheim, a master of brainy, sophisticated and intricately-structured musical comedies.
In some scenes, the stagecraft veers on surrealism, such as when the actors perform a stylized dance like Belle Époque figurines, or when a couple freezes midway in conversation. The show’s artifice lends a satirical edge to the musical. But as its parts slip into place, the actors, staging and music conspire to draw the audience into the poignant humanity of the characters and their follies and yearnings.
Like the Bergman film, the musical revolves around a legend that the solstice bestows smiles on three sorts of people: the young, the fools and the old. In its first act, three couples meet, each in distress. In the second act, they mingle, entangle and change.
Three generations of Armfeldt women bring about these changes, each in her own way. Wheelchair-bound but still potent Madame Armfeldt, a retired courtesan who presides over a grand estate, instructs her 13-year-old granddaughter, Fredrika, to watch for the three smiles.
Desiree Armfeldt, Madame’s daughter and Fredrika’s mother, is a celebrated stage actress. She is tiring of her “shoddy tours” and her lover, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, a married cavalry soldier with “the brain of a pea.” When she crosses paths with a former lover she has not seen for 14 years, Fredrik Egerman, they rekindle their liaison for one night. She longs to win him back, yearning for a “coherent existence after so many years of muddle.”
Fredrik and Desiree became lovers after the death of his first wife. He does not know that Fredrika is the love child of their affair. He has just remarried, and his wife, Anne Egerman, is 18 years old, about the same age as his son, Henrik, an earnest young man who is studying to become a minister. Henrik burns with love for Anne, his new stepmother, and Anne has put off consummating her marriage.
Undaunted by Fredrik’s unlikely marriage, Desiree gets her mother to invite the Egermans to a weekend at her estate with hope of starting anew with him.
In the musical’s spare opening scene, a singer comes out, sits at a piano, and plucks one note. But quickly joining him are four other singers who form an elegant vocal ensemble. Alternating between solos and gliding harmonic passages, they also dance and mingle, and in most scenes populate the on-stage party as friends and neighbors.
Conducted by Eric Stern, a 12-member orchestra renders Sondheim’s orchestrations, which always serve the story within his lyrics — whether injecting delicate emotional punctuation or providing soaring melodic accompaniment. The lilting, infectious score is written almost entirely in waltz time, with variations of tempo and mood to suit each scene throughout the production, which runs two-and-a-half hours with one intermission.
Subtle lighting by Jeff Croiter conjures the magic of a midsummer night that keeps darkness at bay, and with Derek McLane’s set, allows fluid scene shifts. Slender curtains quickly partition a scene and floor panels glide furniture off stage, often along with their occupants frozen mid-pose. A pavilion drops from the ceiling to conjure Madame’s country estate. When a distraught Henrik seeks to hang himself from a tree limb, he finds the birch trees too tall for his noose.
Deft costuming by Robert Morgan also heightens comic effects and accents character and personality.
Scene-stealer Lauren Molina is Countess Charlotte Malcolm, the count’s long-suffering wife. In one of the Charlotte’s semi-hysterical moments, she wears a hat with an alarmingly high peak — the millinery equivalent of a shriek. Lauren Weintraub is a natural as the wise, solemn Fredrika. With her long hair and white dress, she resembles Alice in Wonderland, a suitable look for a girl taking in the foibles of her adult companions.
As rivals for Desiree, Count Carl-Magnus (given a hearty comic turn by Mike McGowan) and Fredrik Egerman (Stephen Bogardus) face off wearing matching beige duster coats.
Bobbie Steinbach is the solitaire-playing Madame Armfeldt, who with her droll asides lets it be known that she does not gladly suffer fools, including her daughter. McCaela Donovan is luscious as the Egermans’ frisky servant Petra. Morgan Kirner is just right as daffy, sweet Anne Egerman and Pablo Torres gives Henrik a soulful dignity. Both actors are students at Boston Conservatory, and their physical resemblance to one another hints at the future destiny of Anne and Henrik as mates.
As various couples contemplate the fateful weekend ahead, scenes shift from one to another with cinematic speed. In one scene, Desiree asks Fredrika how she would feel “if we had a home of our very own with me only acting when I felt like it — and a man who would make you a spectacular father?”
Meanwhile, in another scene, the jealous count, determined to attend with his wife although they are not invited, orders the countess to watch his rival like a hawk. Molina, her body folded into a tense Z shape, replies in a flat voice, “You’re a tiger, I’m a hawk. We’re our own zoo.”
As Fredrik Egerman, Bogardus is buff and dashing, but also a man who needs a nap to keep up with his teenaged wife. He and Haydn Gwynne, as Desiree, share a warm rapport, and their humor and chemistry make a reunion seem inevitable.
Gwynne’s Desiree is sexy and self-aware and she shades the wry humor of her one-liners with a touch of vulnerability. When Fredrik shows up in her theater dressing room yearning for a tryst, she readily agrees, saying, “What are old friends for?”
And when it appears that Desiree’s scheme to win Fredrik has failed, Gwynne delivers the show’s signature song, “Send in the Clowns,” with an aching lyricism that makes time stand still.