Madcap and romantic, A Little Night Music unfolds in the manner of a Molière farce (or a Three's Company episode). Attorney Fredrik Egerman (Victor Garber) has married the much younger Anne (Laura Benanti), who's enamored with her stepson, the glum Henrik (Danny Gurwin) -- who, despite his fanatic Lutheranism, has been diddling Petra, the chambermaid (Jessica Boevers). Meanwhile, Fredrik has never gotten over his old love, the famed actress Desirée Armfeldt (Judith Ivey), who has a jealous lover named Carl-Magnus (Marc Kudisch), who ignores his own bitter wife, Charlotte (Michele Pawk). All of these mismatched lovers convene for a weekend at the château of Madame Armfeldt (Zoe Caldwell), Desirée's crusty old mother. Desirée's daughter Fredrika, played by Kristen Bell at the performance I attended but alternating with Ashley Rose Orr, is also on hand.
Hugh Wheeler's book and even Sondheim's lyrics hint at some very provocative subject matter for an operetta -- lesbianism, penile deficiencies, promiscuity, adultery, and so on. Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy never had to tackle these taboos! The adult treatment of the plot and the characters makes A Little Night Music all the more delicious. Wheeler's first act is tight, comical and, wise, filled with such pithy lines as Anne's "Shall I learn Italian? I think it would be amusing if the verbs aren't too irregular." Act II disappoints somewhat in that the resolutions tie together too neatly and abruptly.
Sondheim's music doesn't contain a false note. Though "Send In the Clowns" became the show's big hit, the melodic score is also highlighted by the rousing ensemble piece "A Weekend In The Country" and several other songs and musical scenes, packed with such irresistible lyrics as "Her taste is much blander, I'm sorry to say / But is Hans Christian Anderson ever risqué?" and "Perpetual sunset is rather an unsettling thing." This is poetry set to music. The opening number best illustrates Sondheim's genius. Fredrik, his wife, and son sing three distinct melodies in counterpoint and each song complements the others: Fredrik longs for his virginal wife in "Now," Anne sings of her sexual inhibitions in "Soon," and Henrik mourns his role as a third wheel in "Later."
Director Scott Ellis brings a distinct elegance to the production; he and choreographer Susan Stroman allow the actors to express themselves through dance. The "Night Waltz" utilizes ballet to interpret the relationships even before the story has begun. For example, Fredrik and Anne can't dance well with each other in this sequence; there's an awkwardness between them. But at the end of Act II, when everyone waltzes with his/her rightful partner, they all glide.
The cast is perfect. Garber, a Sondheim veteran, flawlessly delivers the tricky lyrics. Ivey brings worldliness and a self-mocking humor to Desirée; her Swedish accent occasionally slides into Cockney but, other than that, she's the ideal protagonist. Benanti charmingly embodies the sexually ambivalent young wife. Pawk bites into the acidic dialogue granted to Charlotte, stinging the other characters with her piercing delivery of the lines. Caldwell, a stage legend, vacillates between scorn and passionate remembrance of the past in the dowager role. Kudisch as the rugged but buffoonish Carl-Magnus shows off his comic timing and his solid voice. Michael Chioldi, Joohee Choi, James Schaffner, Laura Kay Swanson, and Stephanie Woodling make up the Greek chorus of liebeslieder singers.
It's no mistake that Woody Allen's version of Smiles of a Summer Night was titled A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, for the themes of the Berman film are similar to those of Shakespeare's comedies. A Little Night Music is all about the delectable foolishness of love -- and this is a delectable production of the musical.