‘A Little Night Music’ Soars at Huntington (5 Stars)

‘A Little Night Music’ – Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; Book by Hugh Wheeler; Inspired by the Ingmar Bergman film, “Smiles of a Summer Night”; Directed by Peter DuBois; Musical Direction by Jonathan Mastro; Conducted by Eric Stern; Scenic Design by Derek McLane; Costume Design by Robert Morgan; Choreography by Daniel Pelzig. Presented by The Huntington Theatre Company at the BU Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston through October 11th.

The Huntington Theatre Company has opened its 34th season with a bang…er, in grand fashion with Stephen Sondheim’s ‘A Little Night Music’, and this lascivious musical comedy is so thoroughly satisfying that I nearly smoked a cigarette afterwards. This is a wonderful production, and although there are many individual standout performances, it’s a truly a case where the whole greatly exceeds the sum of its many admirable parts. This show combines so many awe-inspiring elements – from set design to costumes to music direction – to go with the book and score that I can honestly say that this the finest large scale musical production I have seen this year.

While not as lighthearted a comedy as Sondheim’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum”, it’s a far cry from the gruesome (but nonetheless brilliant) drama of “Sweeney Todd”, “Assassins” or “Into the Woods”, and there are plenty of laughs throughout. The story is another illustration of the often ridiculous judgment that we humans employ when falling in love – all too often powered by an overactive and non-discriminatory libido – which is what has delivered most of the primary characters into their present plight. Nearly everyone desires someone other than the partner they’re actually with, but as the play unfolds we see that love may indeed find a way.

Based on the Ingmar Bergman film, ‘Smiles of a Summer Night’, and set in early 20th century Sweden, “Night Music” involves Fredrik Egerman, a lawyer who has taken a bride three decades his junior; his bride, the lovely but naive 18-year old Anne, who remains a virgin after 11 months of marriage; Henrik, his socially awkward son who is studying for the Lutheran priesthood but secretly lusts for his new stepmother; Desiree Armfeldt, an aging actress with whom Fredrik had a torrid affair years before; and Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, a vain military officer who is Desiree’s extremely jealous but married lover. Also present in the mix is Desiree’s mother, Madame Armfeldt, an elderly former courtesan who amusingly (and inappropriately) educates Desiree’s 13-year old daughter on the ways of the world by regaling her with tales from her career.

The plot is set in motion when Fredrik takes Anne to see Desiree in a touring production that comes to their town, and Anne suspects there is something between Fredrik and Desiree when she continually throws amorous glances his way throughout the performance. Jealous, she demands that Fredrik take her home. He does, but after he tucks her in for the night, he meets with Desiree, rekindling the flame – at least for the actress. But the feelings are not mutual, as he explains in the comical, “You Must meet My Wife” – complete with biting rejoinders by Desiree. The two have a tryst for old times sake, but when her lover the Count makes an unscheduled appearance, the stage is set for a “Weekend in the Country” where everyone may or may not get their just desserts.

This production is staged and executed beautifully. The play begins with a fairly bare set – even the radiators mounted on the back of theater walls are visible – with the exception of a piano and a number of theater trunks. The stage is soon totally transformed as the set pieces descend onto the stage from the rafters and the backdrop unfurls, and the Greek chorus of singers deliver the overture, which builds into “Night Waltz” with the entire cast waltzing about the stage. The set design by Derek McLane for this production is nothing short of brilliant, and the transitions from the elegant home of Fredrik to Desiree’s dressing room to the Armfeldt estate (including a forest scene with two dozen huge birch trees) is seamless. Costumes for the show (by Robert Morgan) are exceptional, right down to the detail of the period undergarments – sexy or otherwise.

There are a number of standout performances, including the leads, Stephen Bogardus as Fredrik Egerman, and Haydn Gwynne as Desiree Armfeldt (whose heart wrenching rendition of “Send in the Clowns” gave me a new appreciation for the song), but it was a pair of performances by Boston-based actors that stood out most for me. Bobbie Steinbach is perfect (and hilarious) as the world weary Madame Armfeldt, and McCaela Donovan, as Anne’s maid who will pair up with anything with a pulse, brings down the house with her lusty version of “The Miller’s Son.” Two Boston Conservatory students play Anne (Morgan Kirner)and Henrik (Pablo Torres) and deliver like pros. This production is not to be missed. For more information, go to: http://www.huntingtontheatre.org/season/2015-2016/a-little-night-music/