It would be generous to call the production values modest, but The White Plains Performing Arts Center’s production of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s A Little Night Music is nonetheless a charmer. Its greatest asset is its expert cast of Broadway stars.
The veterans are especially compelling. Penny Fuller makes an entirely delightful Desiree Armfeldt, the self-absorbed actress who is the story’s focal point, sounding notes of vulnerability and melancholy beneath the character’s veneer of world-wise sophistication. Her rendition of the show’s signature song, “Send In The Clowns,” is wistful and moving. Despite a maturity that makes it hard to believe Desiree is the mother of a teenager, Fuller believably depicts the character’s sexual vitality and has strong romantic on-stage chemistry with Mark Jacoby, top-notch and in expressive voice as Desiree’s lost love Frederick Egerman. The pair have a rapport which makes their comic material, such as their duet “Must Meet My Wife,” particularly delicious.
The entire cast do well in service both to Sondheim’s waltz-based score and to Wheeler’s literate, bittersweet book. Stephen Buntrock is vocally strong as Carl-Magnus, Desiree’s lover, although he’s a tad heavy-handed depicting the character’s arrogance. Rachel de Benedet employs perfectly timed dry comic delivery as Charlotte, Carl-Magnus’ caustic long-suffering wife. In the difficult role of Anne, Frederick’s virginal child-bride, Erin Davie is ideal, wisely avoiding preciousness and singing beautifully. Eddie Egan is suitably intense as Henrik, Frederick’s son.
The biggest revelation, however, is Sheila Smith, who brings vibrancy and vitality as Madame Armfeldt, Desiree’s wheelchair-bound mother whose clear-eyed wisdom balances the other characters’ foolishness in love. When front and center for her solo song “Liasions,” Smith’s multi-layered performance is nothing short of thrilling.
Although Sidney J. Burgoyne’s direction is mostly no-nonsense, guiding the actors purposefully around a small number of furnishings on a mostly bare stage, he does take some risks. One that succeeds is the choice to stage the second-act dinner scene with the actors lined up downstage leaning over the backs of their chairs; one that seems a better idea in theory than in its execution is to have the show’s Liebeslieder Singers manipulate some of the characters like mannequins during “Perpetual Anticipation.”
Although the limited number of musicians — six — in the off-stage pit cannot do full justice to Sondheim’s sublime score; still, under James Bassi’s musical direction, the results are evocative even in miniature.