As refreshing as a sorbet in the heat of the evening, Signature Theatre’s revival of “A Little Night Music” affirms in swellegant fashion that the essence of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s 1973 wit-drenched musical is farce. What director Eric Schaeffer and crew get so right here are all the risible wry personalities in a delightful waltz through the amorous follies of Swedish aristocrats and other randy, needy mortals.
“Night Music,” based on Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 “Smiles of a Summer Night,” is musical comedy in its emotionally richest manifestation. But as revealed in this version, which had its official opening Wednesday night on Signature’s main stage, justice to Sondheim’s most conventionally romantic musical goes unserved if the characters aren’t revealed to be robustly funny. Led by Holly Twyford as a most beguiling and comically self-aware Desiree Armfeldt — vivacious touring actress and singer of “Send in the Clowns” — Schaeffer’s cast meets the formidable challenge of behaving foolishly in high style.
Twyford also is ably supported not only by costume designer Robert Perdziola, who dolls her up in soigne early-20th-century lace and beads (and a killer red beaded dress in Act 2), but also by such vocally accomplished farceurs as Bobby Smith, as Desiree’s old flame, Frederik Egerman; Nicki Elledge, playing Frederik’s all-too-chaste teenage bride, Anne; and Will Gartshore, as Carl-Magnus, a buffoon of a dragoon who has somehow managed to have reserved a place in Desiree’s bed.
Along with Sam Ludwig, portraying Frederik’s moody, sexually frustrated son, Henrik; Maria Rizzo, in the role of libidinous housekeeper Petra; Anna Grace Nowalk as a sweet-natured, poised Fredrika; and Florence Lacey, breathing imperious air into onetime femme fatale Madame Armfeldt, this “Night Music” has all of its comedic artillery locked and loaded. Its not-so-secret weapon, though, is in its driest and drollest performance — that of priceless Tracy Lynn Olivera as the dragoon’s long-suffering better half, Charlotte. Her marriage is held together, it seems, by a string of withering (and expertly delivered) ripostes, most of which go right over the head of bumptious Carl-Magnus. (Is the name meant to suggest this man as Cro-Magnon? If so, Gartshore’s got it down precisely.)
That it has been 44 years since “Night Music’s” Broadway premiere, with Glynis Johns and Len Cariou in the leads, seems uncanny. Because the score is truly timeless, a masterpiece of musical cohesion — it’s virtually all in ¾ time — and lyrical invention . (Wheeler’s book is charming and economical.) You could go on all day about the scrupulously disciplined rhyming, the breathtaking intricacy of, say, the initial trio “Now/Later/Soon” for Frederik, Henrik and Anne: It’s worth locating the lyrics for a deeper appreciation of how the three songs, expressing the state of each character’s sexual fears or longing, intermingle in an ecstatic tussle with desire.
Although Signature staged “Night Music” in 1998, under the direction of Frank Lombardi, and the musical was part of the Sondheim Celebration at the Kennedy Center in 2002, this is the first go at the Tony-winning confection by the company’s founding artistic director. It once again reveals how deft Schaeffer can be with musicals of greater psychological accessibility, his long-ago versions of Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones’s “110 in the Shade” and Sondheim’s “Passion” still vivid in memory. Last season’s “Titanic” took advantage of this affinity for character-driven musicals, too. In tandem with his longtime collaborators, choreographer Karma Camp and music director Jon Kalbfleisch, Schaeffer’s evincing as fine a touch with Sondheim’s lighter motifs as he did with the darker themes of “Passion.”
Without a doubt, too, the new production is several cuts above Trevor Nunn’s mishandled 2009 Broadway revival, with Catherine Zeta-Jones as Desiree. It’s at least as good musically and better visually. Paul Tate dePoo III’s set, framed by Colin K. Bill’s romantic lighting and a curtain of crown molding strips hung vertically, transforms man-made forms into a veritable forest: The lovers, in Shakespearean style, sort out their own foolishness only after they venture into nature. And in the Act 1 finale, “A Weekend in the Country,” Sondheim (with Camp’s expert help here) sets us up with a geyser of adrenaline for the pastoral romp, both lusty and gilded, of Act 2.
Occasionally, a singer’s voice squeaks in the upper register on the Max stage; the score is of such an advanced level that the musical has been absorbed into the repertory of several opera companies. Five of the roles in “Night Music” are inhabited by what are called “The Liebeslieders,” a quintet of singers of interstitial songs about passion. The five singers — Kevin McAllister, Quynh-My Luu, Maria Egler, Benjamin Lurye and Susan Derry — exude a youthful esprit as they harmonize about the confusing intersections of love and sex, at a Northern latitude both exotic and confounding: “Perpetual sunset,” they sing, “is rather an unsettling thing.”
As for the portion of the evening sung by Twyford, a veteran Washington actress but a musical-theater novice: She acquits herself with a becoming aplomb. She displays a pleasant musicality and more than that, a splendid naturalness in interpreting a Sondheim melody. She and Smith turn the double-edged duet “You Must Meet My Wife” into a veritable Noel Coward playlet. And her “Send in the Clowns” proves to be a moving sort of concession speech, a mournful valedictory to love.
It’s pretty much all you can ask for in a genteel musical by the theater’s most sophisticated composer. There’s nothing more to add except: Send in the crowds.
A Little Night Music, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler. Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Music direction, Jon Kalbfleisch; choreography, Karma Camp; costumes, Robert Perdziola; set, Paul Tate dePoo III; lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound, Ryan Hickey; wigs, Anne Nesmith; orchestrations, John Owen Edwards; production stage manager, Kerry Epstein. About 2 hours, 45 minutes. Tickets: $40-$108. Through Oct. 8 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Call 703-820-9771 or visit sigtheatre.org.