A Little Night Music, the final full-fledged production in the Kennedy Center's summer-long "Sondheim Celebration," nicely bookends the series along with the show that opened the tribute in the spring, Sweeney Todd. These are the finest entries in the celebration, and it might even be argued that the best has been saved for last. Where Sweeney is a robust and full-bodied concoction, Night Music is a subtler, more delicate pleasure featuring barbed wit and a meditative score, marvelously well presented in Mark Brokaw's production. A strong ensemble compensates for occasional weaknesses in the performance of Blair Brown, the ostensible star of the show, and this is therefore a summer treat to be savored.
Now 30 years old, Night Music is an operetta with a book by Hugh Wheeler. It tells the story of several pairs of mismatched lovers whose tangled relationships clash in the long twilight of a day in Sweden circa 1900. The musical is based on Ingmar Bergman's film Smiles of a Summer Night, but with its surreal swirl of music (which Sondheim composed entirely in variations of waltz time) and its moonlight-induced merriment, it also conjures up Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream as that play might have been adapted by Chekhov.
This production gets down to business immediately. The curtain, emblazoned with the Sondheim signature, is half-raised as the audience enters so that we can see Derek McLane's charming and woodsy background setting of tree trunks, giant leaves, and translucent panels, all suggesting silk. A formally dressed quintet of singers appears onstage to open the show with a vocal overture, waltzing and changing partners in a suggestion of the story to follow. The group appears occasionally throughout the musical, offering sly comment with lyrics and movement.
The central triangle of Night Music involves the middle-aged Fredrik Egerman (earnestly played by John Dossett); his 18-year old bride of 11 months, Anne (portrayed as a starry-eyed ingénue by Sarah Uriarte Berry); and Fredrik's former lover, the world-weary actress Desirée (an unexpectedly matronly Blair Brown). The plot thickens when these three come together during a weekend in the country at the estate of Desirée's mother. Also on hand are Desirée's current lover, the hot-tempered and dim-witted soldier Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (played with exquisite comic timing and expression by Douglas Sills), and his acid-tongued yet vulnerable wife, Countess Charlotte Malcolm (brought to life by Randy Graff).
Barbara Bryne is Desiree's mother, Madame Armfeldt, a wealthy, aging, former courtesan whose position in life offers her the freedom to comment on the others' foibles. Complicating matters is the fact that Fredrik's son, Henrik (a suitably strident Danny Gurwin), is enamored of his young stepmother, Anne. Added to the mix are some randy servants, notably Natascia Diaz as Petra. Those gathered for the weekend form various liaisons and plot against each other as one of Sondheim's most graceful and lyrical compositions plays out.
There is a tradition of filling the role of Desirée with actresses who are not primarily singers -- which is odd, given that this character gets to perform "Send in the Clowns," arguably the loveliest and certainly the most famous of Sondheim's songs. Brown follows in that tradition: her alto has a limited range and her occasional flat notes drew audible gasps from an opening-weekend audience. Also, though Brown's Desirée is glamorous, she is more grande dame than temptress.
Douglas Sills's Carl-Magnus is a perfect match for Graff, strutting like a peacock in his stylish military uniforms and with various stages of confusion playing over his handsome face. Sills has a comedian's sense of timing, which is put to good use -- along with his strong voice -- in the song "In Praise of Women." Sills and Graff receive the loudest ovations at show's end. Other musical highlights include Bryne's "Liaisons," in which the formidable Madame Armfeldt shares her philosophy of romance as commerce; and "The Miller's Son," in which Diaz's young Petra looks at love from a more earthy perspective, determined to enjoy its pleasures before settling down.
Director Brokaw keeps a tight rein on his cast and never allows the actions of the characters to seem frivolous. John Carrafa's choreography punctuates the production nicely and a full orchestra, conducted by Nicholas Archer, faithfully renders Jonathan Tunick's alternately spare and lush orchestrations. The energy of the ensemble never fades as the cast maintains a fine line between farce and fable, deftly showing Sondheim at his multi-faceted best.