Theater Review: A Little Night Music serves as a suitable swan song at Barrington Stage Company

The principal characters of "A Little Night Music" at Barrington Stage Company in the Berkshires; photos by Daniel Rader.
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Before we proceed, it seems necessary to admit that I’m not crazy about musical theater. Of course, there are exceptions: Oklahoma, to be sure, and I’m a huge Hamilton fan—the original cast recording is a constant on my playlist. When summer merrily rolls along, I typically skip the musicals playing in the Berkshires.

Nevertheless, Barrington Stage Company’s production of A Little Night Music was on my list of must-sees this summer for two reasons: 1) the death of musical theater icon Stephen Sondheim, responsible for the music and lyrics, who actually got started on his illustrious career path at Williams College here in the Berkshires; and 2) this is the final production directed by BSC co-founder Julianne Boyd, who built the organization from the ground up, from its modest start in 1995— renting performance space during the summer in a local high school—to a thriving, award-winning, multiple-stage, year-round organization that’s part of the cultural firmament of the Berkshires.

It’s also a bit embarrassing to admit that I’ve only seen two live Sondheim musicals: Sweeney Todd and Assassins—both edgy works that I enjoyed. (This does not include West Side Story; of course I’ve seen, and liked, the film.) So I was full of anticipation for my opening-night date with the late Stephen Sondheim. It turned out to be a charming encounter that started out slow but ultimately swept me off my feet.

Andrew Marks Maughan, Leslie Jackson, Stephanie Bacastow, Adam Richardson, and Rebecca Pitcher set the scene with song and dance.

A Little Night Music has a name that refers to Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, but the story is inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night. For the uninitiated, this explains why it’s set in Sweden. It begins with a waltz, in which we meet a Greek-chorus-like quintet and view the cast of characters, singing and dancing whilst setting the scene. After the overture, sweet young Fredrika plays a bit of piano for her grandmother, Madame Armfeldt, who seems quite stern and proper, but soon enough we learn of her—shall we say—colorful past as a successful courtesan.

The scene shifts to the home of Fredrik Egerman, a respectable middle-aged lawyer who wed 18-year-old Anne nearly a year ago but has not yet consummated the marriage. We meet his similarly frustrated son Henrik, a seminary student with lust in his heart for both his young stepmother Anne and her maid, the bawdy Petra, both of whom relentlessly flirt with him and mock his attempts at piety.

Petra (Sophie Mings) tempts Henrik (Noah Wolfe).

The action is set in motion when Fredrik takes Anne to the theater for a performance featuring Desiree Armfeldt, a glamorous if slightly faded actor whom Anne admires. As soon as Desiree makes her entrance, Anne can see that she and Fredrik have a past, and Anne insists on leaving. Fredrik returns to the theater late that night to visit Desiree in her dressing room, and just as they revive their romance, her lover, the buffoonish dragoon Count Carl-Magnus Malcom arrives, suspicious about their claims that Fredrik is there on legal business for Desiree’s mother. The next day, he sends his put-upon wife, Charlotte (who is aware of her husband’s affair with Desiree), to inform Anne of her husband’s liaison with Desiree. Anne is crushed.

Anne (Sabina Collazo) and Charlotte (Sierra Boggess) have a tete a tete.

Things really get going when Desiree prevails upon her mother to invite the Egerman family to Madame Armfeldt’s country estate. Anne is inclined to reject the invitation, but Charlotte—now a confidante—convinces Anne to accept, saying her youth and beauty will make her shine in contrast to the older Desiree. When the Count learns of the invitation, he is determined to crash the party, setting up A Weekend in the Country, the clever, rousing song that ends the first act, in which the principal characters express their intentions and trepidations. And what an eventful weekend it turns out to be, replete with witty bickering, clandestine encounters, a suicide attempt, confessions of love, a round of Russian Roulette, reconciliations, a peaceful death, and a happy ending.

The main characters prepare for a weekend in the country.

While A Little Night Music includes several waltzes, the dance that best captures the narrative is the square dance; there is a lot of partner-changing as the characters do-si-do throughout. Yet the production radiates elegance, from the sumptuous costumes designed by Sara Jean Tosetti to the scenic design by Yoon Bae, featuring evocative backdrops and a pavilion that folds and unfolds to suit the scenes: Frederik’s underutilized bedroom, Desiree’s dressing room, Countess Armfeldt’s formal dining room, and the Swedish countryside. Lighting design by David Lander manages to capture the glow of the Nordic sun.

Charlotte and her husband Count Carl-Magus Malcom (Cooper Grodin) scheme to crash the party.

The best lines of the play (book by Hugh Wheeler) go to the women. I relished every appearance of Charlotte, played by Sierra Boggess: beaten-down, conflicted, yet still carrying a torch for her cruel, wayward husband, whose ruling sentiment of jealousy ultimately rekindles his feelings for her. Mary Beth Peil’s worldly and world-weary Madame Armfeldt grew on me once her colorful past was revealed in her featured song, Liaisons; like Charlotte, this seemingly prim grandma lets fly a few zingers. Emily Skinner as Desiree brings down the house with Send in the Clowns, not just the most well known song of the show but also one of the most popular tunes in the American songbook; her emotional delivery is heart-felt and heart-wrenching.

Emily Skinner’s Desiree brings down the house with Send in the Clowns, but eventually true love—with Jason Danieley’s Fredrik—prevails.

Sophie Mings portrays a perfect Petra, an earthy wench with dreams she realizes are beyond her station in life, as we hear in her number, The Miller’s Son. Sabina Collazo’s Anne can be grating, but perhaps that’s intentional given the obvious mismatch between this girlish bride and Fredrik, played with a keen sense of propriety and regret by Jason Danieley. As Henrik, Noah Wolfe conveys the character’s mix of confusion, naivety, and impetuousness. Cooper Grodin plays Count Carl-Magnus Malcom with appropriate flamboyance, menace, and pomposity.

All the actors are in good voice, and the choreography by Robert La Fosse suits the narrative, moving the players gracefully across the stage and capturing the tone of the drama. By the end, like several of the characters, I was swept off my feet, as if in one of the waltzes. This production is a lovely and satisfying midsummer night’s musical comedy, and a fine parting gift to Berkshire audiences from director Julianne Boyd.

Barrington Stage Company’s production of A Little Night Music plays at the Boyd-Quinson Stage in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, through August 28.

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