PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Revisiting as many Sondheim musicals as possible is not an arduous undertaking, and one I have engaged in at many junctures of my life. But this year, the first in the aftermath of Stephen Sondheim’s death, feels like an essential part of a grieving process. As much as I can — to paraphrase one of Sondheim and James Lapine’s own characters in “Sunday in the Park With George”— I want to live again in his canvasses.
Broadway has recently obliged with outstanding revivals of “Company” (1970) and “Into the Woods” (1987), and the months ahead offer other intriguing possibilities: Sondheim-centric Signature Theatre in Arlington is turning its new season into a veritable retrospective, offering up three Sondheim musicals, including the rarely seen “Pacific Overtures,” from 1976, to be directed by Ethan Heard, the company’s recently appointed associate artistic director.
There is a deep hunger that Sondheim satisfies, for intelligence and syntactic rigor in a form that in lesser hands comes across as pat and lazy. Artists, of course, such as Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jason Robert Brown, Jeanine Tesori, David Yazbek and Michael R. Jackson are worthy upholders of the standards. But Sondheim’s unmatched ability to weld words to notes, to find music and rhymes in the most surprising nooks and crannies of the language, sends me back to his shows in an almost compulsive way. Sondheimism is my own agreeable disorder.
My latest encounter occurred over the weekend in this Berkshires city and a production of “A Little Night Music,” the Tony-winning romantic farce Sondheim wrote with librettist Hugh Wheeler in the early 1970s. Barrington Stage Company’s commendable if not entirely successful revival is notable for the high-end leads it has recruited. The cast is led by the handsome, finely tuned pairing of Jason Danieley as Fredrik Egerman and Emily Skinner as Desiree Armfeldt, the lovelorn Swedish stage vet seeking to relight the flame of youthful passion.
The score, composed as a series of waltz variations, is based on the Ingmar Bergman comedy “Smiles of a Summer Night” and is Sondheim’s most winsome. It includes the number that put to rest for good the canard that he could not write with emotion or tuneful richness: “Send in the Clowns,” here performed by Skinner with alluring finesse. Wheeler’s book, on this occasion, though, shows signs of age. Half a century proves to be inordinately long for a comedy of sexual manners to hold up, particularly because at its center — in a musical set in 1905 — is the marriage of a middle-aged lawyer and an 18-year-old (Sabina Collazo’s Anne Egerman). As a child, Anne notes, she called Fredrik “uncle.”
What once might have struck audiences as comically benign is now slightly discomfiting — as is a lyric in the wordplay of “It Would Have Been Wonderful,” a complaining song for Danieley’s Fredrik and a rival for Desiree, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Cooper Grodin): “If she had only been sulky — or bristling — or bulky — or bruised,” they sing at each other. Eesh. One can take into account the time in which a piece was written, but musicals live and breathe in our moment. It surprised me in the last month that “Into the Woods” rose in my estimation, courtesy of Lear deBessonet’s extraordinary production at the St. James Theatre, and here, director Julianne Boyd’s “A Little Night Music” lowered the show on my canon list.
Nothing, however, will ever dampen my regard for the Act 1 finale, “A Weekend in the Country,” a witty round-robin of farcical scheming that sets in motion the settling of scores in Act 2. On Barrington’s Boyd-Quinson Stage, the number further underlines the vital role of Countess Charlotte Malcolm, beleaguered wife of the philandering count, and played here to the marvelous hilt by Sierra Boggess. Who knew the erstwhile star of Broadway’s “The Little Mermaid” could embody the burned-out ends of betrayal so magnificently?
Some of the limitations of this “Night Music” are technical: A seven-member orchestra conducted by Darren R. Cohen sounds thin in a 520-seat house; when it comes to Jonathan Tunick’s sublime orchestrations, only the full array of flavors will do. (I might have been spoiled by the earful of the “Into the Woods” experience, with an orchestra more than twice as large.) A few of the supporting performances come across as one-dimensional. And the operatic technique of the musical’s Greek-chorus Quintet, often referred to as the Liebeslieder singers, overwhelms some of the lyrics.
The trip to Pittsfield nevertheless felt bountiful. In a field eternally questing for true inspiration, Sondheim’s scores represent for me a kind of perfection — or at least, an artist’s indomitable effort to achieve it. So I’ll take that ride, even when the results aren’t perfect.
A Little Night Music, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler. Directed by Julianne Boyd. Sets, Yoon Bae; choreography, Robert La Fosse; music direction, Darren R. Cohen; costumes, Sara Jean Tosetti; lighting, David Lander; sound, Leon Rothenberg. With Mary Beth Peil, Sophie Mings, Kate Day Magocsi, Slater Ashenhurst, Adam Richardson, Rebecca Pitcher, Stephanie Bacastow, Andrew Marks Maughan, Leslie Jackson. About 2 hours 40 minutes. Through Aug. 28 at Boyd-Quinson Stage, 30 Union St., Pittsfield, Mass. 413-236-8888. barringtonstageco.org.