Holly Twyford as Desiree Armfeldtwith the ensemble of A Little Night Music at Signature Theatre, directed by Eric Schaeffer.
Holly Twyford as Desiree Armfeldt, with the ensemble of A Little Night Music at Signature Theatre, directed by Eric Schaeffer.
(© Paul Tate DePoo III)

In its 28th production of a Stephen Sondheim musical, Signature Theatre opens its 2017-2018 season with A Little Night Music. Set in Sweden in 1900, this Night Music is a vibrant, sensitive production of one of Sondheim's more popular works. Vaguely patterned after Ingmar Bergman's film Smiles of a Summer Night , the show (with book by Hugh Wheeler) plays as a romantic comedy about a few pairs of mismatched couples looking for more fitting partners.

Before the action starts, a group of five top-notch singers, called the Liebeslieders, begin to harmonize, offering fragments of songs to come that blend together into the Overture. Then individual cast members enter. There is the aging Madame Leonora Armfeldt, who has many memories of her wealthy lovers in decades past. She is accompanied by her granddaughter, Fredrika, whose mother is the famous actress Desiree Armfeldt. Middle-aged Fredrik Egerman enters. A well-heeled lawyer, Fredrik married the 18-year-old Anne 11 months earlier, when his first wife died, but they have yet to consummate the marriage. Fredrik's son, Henrik, is a seminary student who is a year older than his stepmother and is desperately in love with Anne.

Fredrik goes to Desiree's home to discuss with her his frustration about his marriage. While he is there, Desiree's current lover, a gruff dragoon named Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm comes to visit her, too. Desiree and Fredrik, who many years earlier had a liaison of their own, make up a story to excuse Fredrik's presence, but the Count is not fooled. He goes home fuming to his patient wife, Charlotte. Meanwhile, Desiree convinces her mother to invite Fredrik and Anne to a weekend in the country to help them sort out their marital difficulties. When Carl-Magnus and Charlotte hear about the party, they decide to crash it, resulting in some awkward, unexpected moments and a duel between Fredrik and Carl-Magnus.

Holly Twyford is brilliant in the role of Desiree Armfeldt, who has had a great career but is now just performing in touring Ibsen productions in small cities. Though she isn't as famous as she once was, she has a sense of contentment about her career that allows Twyford to make Desiree a sympathetic character. When she sings "Send in the Clowns," as she does beautifully, she sounds appropriately wistful.

Bobby Smith is a good foil for Twyford as Fredrik. He has a smooth, powerful voice and a likable manner. As his son, Sam Ludwig makes Henrik's agony very entertaining, whether he is playing mournful cello pieces or reading religious books. As Anne Egerman, Nicki Elledge is delightful. She is clearly playing Anne as still a girl who is unable to understand Fredrik's needs. These three sing a particularly effective trio on the passage of time in Act 1: "Now," "Later," and "Soon."

Tracy Lynn Olivera is well cast as the blasé Countess Charlotte Malcolm. She is perfectly aware of Carl-Magnus's infidelity. With hard, dark eyes, she makes her duet with Anne, "Every Day a Little Death," a high point of the show. Will Gartshore equals Olivera's portrayal with his performance as Carl-Magnus, the show's only character motivated by a desire for power rather than love.

Florence Lacey is charming as Madame Leonora Armfeldt, the elder stateswoman of romance, who sings "Liaisons" with great feeling. It is Lacey's character who creates the reason for the famous song, "A Weekend in the Country," where nearly every character gets to air — at rapid-fire speed — his or her reasons to attend or not attend the weekend out of town. Anna Grace Nowalk is very fine as Fredrika Armfeldt. Kevin McAllister adds a powerful voice as the manservant Frid. Maria Rizzo gives a hearty, credible turn as the maid, Petra.

Signature's artistic director Eric Schaeffer directs this musical with intelligence and clarity. Karma Camp provides seamless, colorful choreography. On a balcony above the stage, Jon Kalbfleisch energetically directs a 15-member orchestra. Paul DePoo III's set comprises occasional pieces of furniture in front of three scrims decorated with vertical pieces of gold picture frames. Colin Bills's lighting subtly changes the color of the scrims to reflect different times of day. Robert Perdziola creates a stunning collection of floor-length, white lace dresses for the women, with one exception: Desiree's crimson costume.

In the hands of the wrong director, Night Music can seem like a superficial analysis of jealousy and infidelity among the very rich. But under Schaeffer's expert direction, the musical delves deeply into all of the characters' true feelings and astutely mines their understanding of their place in a richly described community where love is a most highly prized commodity.