Stephen Sondheim may be an acquired taste — especially when he aims for sophistication, as in A Little Night Music — but once that taste is established, eating makes the appetite grow. The songs require more active listening than is standard in conventional musicals, and the show’s prismatic trios and duets merge with the complexity of classical opera, but the emotional payoffs more than compensate for three hours of paying this kind of close attention. Jonathan Fox’s sparkling new production captures the magic of Sondheim’s words and music through strong casting and by making the most of Jonathan Tunick’s brilliant and challenging orchestration. With the musicians appearing onstage, the chamber-music aspect of the show is highlighted, but thanks to David Potter’s skillful conducting from the piano, the results were captivating. Between the thrill of breaking in the New Victoria Theatre and the excitement of having such stars in the cast as Piper Laurie as Madame Armfeldt, Stephanie Zimbalist as her daughter Desiree, and leading man Patrick Cassidy as her lover Fredrik Egerman, the audience was buzzing even before the first note was struck.
The story, which is derived from the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night, takes place in Sweden in the early 20th century, among the upper classes. In Act One, the seductive (and single) actress Desiree Armfeldt (Zimbalist) holds romantic sway over two married men, the successful lawyer Egerman (Cassidy) and the pompous dragoon, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Jordan Miller). Through the agency of Countess Charlotte Malcolm (Heather Ayers) and Egerman’s wife, the young ingénue Anne Egerman (Carla Bracco), the entire group begins a process that will test the strength of their existing bonds. In Act Two, a glamorous weekend in the country turns into something more consequential, as partners change and the limitations of desire are acknowledged by those in a position to know. At the center, there’s the oldest and wisest of them all, Madame Armfeldt (Laurie), nonchalantly dispensing philosophical tidbits to the youngest, her granddaughter Fredrika (Emily Cummings on the night I was there, but alternating with Erika Foreman) in a tone of well-earned disillusionment.
Zimbalist delivers a memorable and multifaceted performance as Desiree; it’s one of the greatest roles in the musical repertoire, and it requires that the actress go all the way from devil-may-care in Act One to heartbreakingly vulnerable in Act Two for the show’s one truly famous song, “Send In the Clowns.” Zimbalist was made for exactly such bravura transformations, and she accomplishes this one admirably, even while waltzing gracefully through shards of broken glass without shoes on opening night due to a small prop mishap. What an apt metaphor for this performer’s courage and focus!
A Little Night Music is a true ensemble piece, and that means every actor has a chance to shine. As the servant Petra, Misty Cotton was first funny and then devastating with her solo on the song “The Miller’s Son.” Jordan Miller had just the right comic persona to carry off the ardent Carl-Magnus, and as his crafty wife, Charlotte, Heather Ayers was a total delight. Max Miller brought comic timing and brooding intensity to the young seminarian Henrik Egerman, and as Anne Egerman, Carla Bracco was radiant and vocally commanding. Deborah Bertling added sizzle to the complex harmonies as Malla, and all the actors succeeded in navigating Sondheim’s demanding transitions.
Perhaps the secret to the smiles of A Little Night Music’s summer night lies in the fact that each viewer sees in it what they bring to it. For me, the chemistry between the wonderful Cassidy and Zimbalist made this show both moving and romantic.