Why not just waltz directly to the point in dizzying three-quarter time? So here is the spin: It would be difficult to imagine a more glorious rendering of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” than the one now onstage in the intimate confines of Writers’ Theatre.
With a sublime cast under the impeccably nuanced, worldly-wise direction of William Brown – and singing, accompanied by a quintet of onstage musicians that is heard in the most ear-caressing acoustic mode – Sondheim’s 1973 musical (with a book by Hugh Wheeler inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s film, “Smiles of a Summer Night”), is entrancing on all counts.
A supremely witty and rueful reminder of the farcical nature of romantic love, and all its attendant insanities and humiliations, this matchlessly sophisticated show also muses on the separate but equal angst and confusion experienced by the young, middle-aged and old when it comes to matters of the heart. The most lilting and lyrical of Sondheim’s many lustrous scores, it is the lyrics – impossibly clever, smile-inducing and, above all, character-defining – that beguile most as they capture human nature at its most ridiculous, ribald, yearning, thwarted and baffled. And Brown’s actors grab hold of every word.
Driving the story are two families in turn-of-the-20th century Sweden. Fredrik Egerman (Jonathan Weir, in the finest portrayal of his long career) is a wealthy bourgeois lawyer in deep middle age who has impulsively married Anne Egerman (the lustrous, golden-voiced Kristen French), a virginal coquette not yet 18. Anne is, in fact, just about the same age as Fredrik’s son, Henrik (a boyishly tormented Royen Kent (who even plays the cello), a sexually repressed seminary student.
Not surprisingly, Henrik adores his father’s young wife, and she enjoys teasing him mercilessly, as does the family’s earthy servant girl, Petra (Brianna Borger, who gives a wonderfully exuberant rendering of “The Miller’s Son”), who would happily initiate him, though she has far more fun with another servant, Frid (the most appealing J. Michael Finley).
Meanwhile, on the bohemian front, there is Desiree Armfeldt (the marvelously seductive, jaded and elegantly down-to-earth Shannon Cochran, in a role she seems born to play). A glamorous actress with a peripatetic life, Desiree, still ravishing in middle age, was once involved with Fredrik, but is now having an affair with a pugnacious, laughable philanderer, Count Carl-Magnus (Brandon Dahlquist is perfection), who is married to the very attractive but neglected Countess Charlotte (Tiffany Scott in a bristling, whip-smart performance).
Desiree, ever the free spirit, is the mother of a preteen daughter, Fredrika (lovely Shannon Corey), who she has left in the care of the girl’s sly, impossibly elegant grandmother, a canny former courtesan, Madame Armfeldt (Tony Award-winner Deanna Dunagan in an exquisitely droll, jewel-like portrayal). But she is feeling the urge to finally settle down, and her reacquaintance with Fredrik triggers a comedy of mismatched desires (“Send In the Clowns”) that defines the show.
The excellent onstage musicians, led by music director Valerie Maze, include Andrew McCann, Jill Kaeding, Sean McNeely and Ben Melsky. And it is just one indication of the overall star power of this show (magnificently costumed by Rachel Anne Healy) that Cory Goodrich, a dazzling actress-singer, plays “the chorus.”
In brief, there are no end of smiles in this radiant summer night of a musical.