Signature Theatre’s stunning production of this Sondheim gem is nothing short of a masterpiece.
A Little Night Music is one of my personal favorites from the Stephen Sondheim canon. Set in Sweden, circa 1900, it examines the intertwining lives of several couples who explore their romantic plights. Sondheim’s score, it is no secret, was composed entirely on variations of three-quarter time, beginning with waltzes and expanding to incorporate many other time signatures, providing a swirling soundscape that pays homage to Maurice Ravel, coupled to some of Sondheim’s most pointed lyrics.
A Little Night Music is also sophisticated, sexy, and stylishly staged to allow the story and score to fill the Max Theatre effortlessly. Eric Schaeffer has assembled a cast of primarily local all-stars, each one a solid performer; together they form an ensemble that, like its production of Titanic, becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
Let’s take DC’s leading lady Holly Twyford, who here inhabits the role of the leading lady in the musical, as well. Audiences might not expect Twyford to be associated with a musical, since we know her primarily from the classics and contemporary work from across the spectrum of theatre companies in the DMV. Here, she is perfectly cast as the actress Desiree Armfeldt, torn between not only two lovers, but also the glamorous life of constantly touring or settling down to be a mother to her teenage daughter.
Twyford captures Desiree’s theatricality, as well as her charm and wit. When the role requires singing, never fear – Twyford is up to the task, performing with clear diction and expressive instrument falling in the “Lauren Bacall sings the Bea Arthur Songbook” range. Desiree’s personal and poignant song, “Send in the Clowns,” has been warbled by everyone from Sinatra to Judy Collins. Twyford’s Desiree finds the heartbreak in the song with simplicity and grace.
Leading man Bobby Smith plays Desiree’s former lover, who, for his second wife, has taken an 18 year old bride, still guarding her maidenhood from her “dear old Frederik.” The middle-aged Frederik, as played by Smith is world-weary, affable, and wears his desires on his sleeve. A seasoned musical performer, Smith handles his musical numbers with his celebrated panache; while his chemistry with Twyford as his old flame is palpable. The timing they both employ to deliver their duet about Frederik’s virginal wife, “You Must Meet My Wife,” is a delight.
Will Gartshore completes the love triangle as manly, cocky, and pea-brained Count Carl-Magnus, a dragoon and a buffoon of the royal order. Gartshore’s virile baritone and blustering stage presence fit the role like his regimental uniform. Twyford’ masterfully juggles both her old love and her current lover in a style that would do Oscar Wilde proud.
Speaking of Wilde, A Little Night Music falls squarely in the witty Sondheim oeuvre, with hints of Strindberg, or even Noël Coward. (The show is incidentally suggested by “Smiles of a Summer Night,” a vintage Ingmar Bergman film.)
The bon mots and biting wit are most personified in the lines and dialogue of two characters, the Count’s long-suffering wife Charlotte and Desiree’s mother, a retired courtesan in the twilight of her days. Countess Charlotte is brought to life with impeccable timing and a voice like butter by Tracy-Lynn Olivera. Striking in the period couture designed by Robert Perdziola, and in glorious voice as always, Olivera can make one line seem like a one-act play, taking the less is more approach, but landing each line with laser-like precision. Her rendering of the duet with Anne, “Every Day a Little Death,” is stunning in its honesty and understatement.
Providing a matronly and wise presence as she observes the young and foolish and the middle-aged and deluded couples wrangling away, Florence Lacey makes a welcome return to Signature as Madame Armfeldt. If you have never seen Night Music, imagine Maggie Smith’s Dowager from “Downton Abbey” in a musical; Lacey even works an elegant cane (and sometimes wheelchair) with grace.
Representing the folly of youth within the romantic world, Anna Grace Nowalk as Desiree’s love-child Fredika (hint, hint) serves as a mature voice despite her youth. Nowalk handles her scenes, primarily with Lacey, Twyford and Ludwig like a seasoned pro.
Frederik’s wife Anne is played to perfection and simplicity by sweet-voiced Nicki Elledge. As step-mother to her husband’s college-aged Henrik, Elledge also plays the coquettish flirt to the hilt setting Sam Ludwig’s heart, among other things, a-flutter. Ludwig wears his angst and repressed sexuality on his sleeve and sings with a powerful tenor voice that allows Henrik’s tortured psyche to shine through.
Henrik is also tortured by the Egerman’s lusty housemaid Petra, portrayed by the talented Maria Rizzo. Rizzo captures the earthy sensuality with her every move. With Rizzo’s 11 o’clock number, “The Miller’s Song,” Petra’s homage to the simple joys of the flesh with gentlemen, born low or high, Rizzo’s easily fills the Max with her expressive voice.
A Little Night Music
closes October 8, 2017
Details and tickets
Throughout the couplings and un-couplings, all roads lead to all the characters descending on Madame Armfeldt’s rustic estate. This is accomplished through the tour-de-force Act I finale, “A Weekend in the Country.” Once at Madame Armfeldt’s open air estate, Cupid is a busy boy until the dance partners, none-the-worse for wear, make their way into each other’s arms.
Observing and commenting on the sensual shenanigans from the first notes of the score to the last, Kevin McCallister leads a quintet of “Liebeslieders” or lieber singers, who serve a Swedish Greek chorus. With trained and precise voices that blend and work seamlessly together, the liebeslieders perform some of Sondheim’s most intricate harmonies. McCallister, along with Quynh-My Luu, Maria Engler, Benjamin Lurye, and Susan Derry make beautiful music together.
Schaeffer’s gifted design collaborators likewise contribute to the keen storytelling, beginning with an understated but expansive scenic design by Paul Tate DePoo III. Like a timeless ballroom, the three-quarter stage configuration offers a ready dance floor for the characters to come together in the swirling opening, and flow smoothly to its final moments. Signature’s veteran lighting designer Colin K. Bills’ work helps evoke layers of romanticism, shifts of time, and changes in locale with grace.
An interesting design choice was to costume the Liebeslieders in a neutral pallette and clothing that seems more late 20th century than early. As for Desiree, Frederik and the other principles, Perdziola’s exquisite period wear is breathtaking.
If everything else I have written hasn’t convinced you that Signature’s A Little Night Music is not to be missed, consider, please, maestro John Kalbfleisch, music director extraordinaire. From larger ensembles in West Side Story and Titanic, to smaller casts, Kalbfleisch’s contributions to the theatre’s musical productions cannot be understated. For this production, the original Jonathan Tunick orchestrations are set aside for a chamber-sized, 13-member orchestra, arranged by John Owen Edwards. As the composer himself said in an interview a few years back, the reduced orchestration allows a clearer pathway for the actors to deliver crisp diction for the intricate lyrics. This production is proof-positive of this premise. The orchestra is first class and Sondheim’s music weaves a lyrical spell.
A Little Night Music . Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim . Book by Hugh Wheeler . Directed by Eric Schaeffer Cast: Holly Twyford, Bobby Smith, Will Gartshore, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Florence Lacey, Nicki Elledge, Sam Ludwig, Maria Rizzo, Susan Derry, Maria Egler, Benjamin Lurye, Quynh-My Luu, Kevin McCallister, and Anna Grace Nowalk. Choreographed by Karma Camp . Music direction by Jon Kalbfleisch . Set and lighting design: Paul Tate DePoo, III . Costume design: Robert Perdziola . Lighting design: Colin K. Bills . Sound design: Ryan Hickey . Production stage manager: Kerry Epstein . Produced by Signature Theatre . Reviewed by Jeff Walker.