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A Little Night Music

Mark Lamos' star-studded production of the Hugh Wheeler-Stephen Sondheim musical favors its comic side. logo
Stephen Bogardus and Barbara Walsh
in A Little Night Music
(© Richard Anderson)
Just in time for spring comes Center Stage's alluring, if slightly defanged, revival of Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim's Tony Award-winning 1973 musical A Little Night Music, based on Ingmar Bergman's film Smiles of a Summer Night. Vivaldi, one can say, has nothing on Sondheim when it comes to four seasons full of emotion.

The show finds its emotional anchor (and literal setting) in the kind of mad, lusty midsummer night first made famous by Shakespeare, while also managing to encompass the still-simmering passions of a grand old lioness in winter (Madame Armfeldt, played by the redoubtable Polly Bergen) and the spring-like uncontrollable urges of virginal, newly budding lovers, Anne and Henrik (the dithery Julia Osborne and Josh Young). Autumn is captured at show's end in the form of two middle-aged, battle-scarred love warriors, the actress Desiree Armfeldt (Barbara Walsh) and lawyer Frederik Egerman (Stephen Bogardus, singing the role splendidly), who don't exactly walk off into the sunset as much as they hold each other up in the moonlight.

At first, Mark Lamos' production looks as if it's going to hyperventilate in an attempt to reinvent, if not downright deconstruct, this legendary work. Riccardo Hernandez's unit set is dominated by a giant gilt picture frame that frames the theater's exposed back wall, while smaller picture frames stack against themselves in corners around the stage. Into this odd picture come the Liebeslieder singers (Whit Baldwin, Jacque Carnahan, Amy Justman, Alison Mahoney, and Joe Paparella), who hit the stage, not as stuffy household help, but in full-blown orgiastic revelry.

Yet, soon enough, the concept begins to pay off. A Little Night Music may ostensibly be about well-to-do, Scandinavian gentry living in well-appointed country homes and among richly manicured gardens, but beneath the brocade vests and polished tabletops, the piece has always been about sex: having it and not having it, giving into it and giving up on it, loving it and hating it, and all the in-between. And it's the in-between that provides Sondheim with his musical and lyrical playground -- a score famously composed entirely in Strauss-tinged waltz time, yet full of the anxieties and ambiguities that are the composer-lyricist's hallmark.

Lamos seems to favor the comic element of the show over its more deeply felt emotions; for instance, he treats the suddenly romantically stranded Desiree and Frederik at the end of the second act -- often a devastating moment -- more like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers picking themselves up and dusting themselves off after a brief misunderstanding in an RKO tuner. This lighter approach doesn't do any real damage; it just may leave audiences unversed in the inherent glories of the show more roundly entertained than deeply moved. Yet Lamos has his triumphs, particularly in the famous dinner party sequence in which the director makes delicious, theatrical use of his actors, having them convey a lavish and drunken feast with nary a dining table or butter knife in sight.

Playing Wheeler's book with its epigrammatic wit and mismatched romantic couplings, not to mention singing Sondheim's demanding score and rapid-fire lyrics, requires actor-singers of exceptional charm and drawing room comedy chops. Fortunately, Lamos has assembled a particularly glittery line-up, even in some of the smaller roles. Sarah Uriarte Berry, as the maid Petra, makes lusty hay out of "The Miller's Son," Maxwell Caulfield amuses as the dragoonish Count Carl-Magnus, and Kate Baldwin lands her zingers in haute style as the wasp-tongued Countess Charlotte. While Walsh at first seems too earthbound for the idiosyncratic diva Desiree, she grows more assured as the evening progresses, eventually offering up a touching and well-sung rendition of the beloved "Send in the Clowns."

Chase Brock's minimal choreography, particularly for the Liebeslieders, is smooth, subtle, and elegant. Candice Donnelly has provided gorgeous costumes, beautifully bathed in Robert Wierzel's lighting. It all befits a smiling summer night in Sweden -- or a night in early spring in Baltimore.

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