Perfect mix of laughs, laments in “A Little Night Music”

by Colin Dabkowski, The Buffalo News
3-1/2 Stars (out of 4)
Five times a week through Oct. 18, theatergoers will make their way into the Andrews Theatre on Main Street, the orchestra will strike up a waltz and the outside world will melt completely away.

In its place arose Chris Kelly’s light, lithe and beautifully performed production of “A Little Night Music, ” Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s dreamy, three-quarter-time fantasia on the foolishness of love, the fickleness of devotion and the difference between the two.

Though set in turn-of-the-century Sweden and performed in period costumes, make no mistake that the 1973 show, based on Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” is thoroughly contemporary in at least one important way: Nearly all of its characters want sex, and they’ll lie their three-piece suits and corsets off to get it.

For the most part, those characters are timeless archetypes to be found in any stubbornly patriarchal society, from the insecure if apparently irresistible lawyer Frederik Egerman (Matthew Witten) to his naïve young wife Anne (Renee Landrigan) and the faded actress Desiree Armfeldt (Jenn Stafford) to whom Frederik is truly drawn.

If the characters sound familiar, the songs are something else entirely. In few other musicals does Sondheim display such simultaneously witty and unsparing lyricism, which manifests itself in such peerless songs as “You Must Meet My Wife,” “Every Day a Little Death” and “Send in the Clowns,” to which Stafford brings every ounce of required pathos.

Nearly every moment in the musical is infused with a tension between sexual desire and emotional well being, which Sondheim and Wheeler seem to suggest are irreconcilable except through a great deal of painful soul searching. That most of the show is in waltz time emphasizes the idea that this negotiation is a constant dance, and that the dance itself may be the best we can hope for.

The show presents an enormous challenge for a director and his cast who could easily lose themselves in its period trappings or in the existential despair that lies at the heart of this and most Sondheim shows. Kelly and his excellent cast dispense with that challenge like the professionals they are, and solve it by turning up to comedic volume on the production to a few decibels below camp.

In Sondheim’s universe, after all, comedy and hubris are thin scrims barely obscuring a depthless source of existential dread and insecurity. By stressing the former from just the right angle, you deepen the audience’s understanding of the latter.

This effect is on full display in Witten and Stafford’s consummate performance of “You Must Meet My Wife,” a storytelling masterpiece in which Frederik inadvertently reveals the shallowness of his relationship with his young trophy wife and Desiree overtly expresses her incredulity and disgust at his self-deception. They both know the score, but insist on doing a beautiful dance around the issue instead of addressing it directly.

In “Every Day a Little Death,” Michele Marie Roberts is masterful as the world-weary Charlotte, so many times wronged by her philandering husband Carl-Magnus (Anthony Alcocer) that she has resigned herself to a life of small victories in the face of huge disappointments.

Though the women in the show are by no means innocent, it does carry a definite and potentially off-putting whiff of the patriarchal. It makes you cringe a bit, for instance, to listen to Carl-Mangus and Frederick explicate their impossibly high standards for beddable women in “It Would Have Been Wonderful,” but Sondheim and Kelly make it easy to view the song as a critique of machismo run rampant.

Under music director Allan Paglia and his excellent orchestra, the cast acquits itself wonderfully. In addition to Witten, Stafford and Roberts, fine performances come from Pamela Rose Mangus as Madame Armfeldt on the cheeky song “Liaisons,” the slightly-too-campy Alcocer on “In Praise of Women” and Amy Jakiel as Petra on the heartbreaking if extraneous song “The Miller’s Son.” Charmagne Chi, Robert Cooke and Faith Wahl also excel in minor roles.

The show, though for the most part expertly plotted and paced, runs a bit long and suffers from afew too many pieces of musical comic relief. The comedy, after all, is everywhere in Sondheim’s score and in his lyrics. On the Andrews stage as in life, the comedy is inextricable from the pain – an understanding that makes this show, and especially this production, a remarkable success.