Based on Smiles of a Summer Night, the great Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman’s only comedy, A Little Night Music stands as Stephen Sondheim’s closest approach to a rom-com, albeit one with the psychological complexity and shades of darkness for which Sondheim is justly famous. The story follows interlocking, mismatched couples as, somewhat in spite of themselves, they grope their way toward the relationships they truly desire.
The vocal quality of the Reston Community Players cast is superb, starting with the quintet (Richard Jacobson, Claudia Barbish, Nour Bahri, Alden Michaels, and Amanda Jones), who open the show with its sung overture and, as a sort of Scandinavian Greek chorus, frequently comment on characters, situations, and, in one of their best moments, the oddity of living in the land of the midnight sun. If one had to name the brightest star among an excellent cast, the quintet would be it. To director Andy Regiec’s credit, he gives members of the quintet some brief, effective acting moments, an opportunity that many productions miss.
As that exemplar of toxic masculinity, Count Malcolm, baritone James Rogers provides the most spectacular performance of “In Praise of Women” I’ve ever heard, sustaining the song’s final note to the audience’s acclaim. As a comic actor, Rogers succeeds by allowing his character to take himself very seriously at all times, never betraying any awareness of how ridiculous he is.
Among the younger characters, Shakil Azizi as Henrik is convincing in his late teenage angst and emotionally volatility, combined with mastery of the wide-ranging vocal gymnastics of his first act song, “Later.” As his counterpart, Anne, Shelby Young has the pure, high soprano sound needed for her ingénue role, first on display in “Soon.” Young handles well Anne’s second act awakening to the fact that she has real feelings to act upon, beyond the frivolousness she has used to keep them at bay.
The lead couple, Fredrik and Desirée (Joshua and Jennifer Redford), are long-ago lovers who dance tentatively around one another, yearning for reconnection yet not, until almost too late, directly confronting what they feel. This creates good opportunities for comedy, as in their first act number, “You Must Meet My Wife.” It also leads to the best-known song in the show, Desirée’s “Send in the Clowns,” in which she contends, in a mood of rueful resignation, with crushed hopes. Veteran actress that Desirée is, she does so in poignant theatrical metaphors.
Sondheim wrote the song, with its narrow range and short phrases, for the original Desirée, Glynnis Johns, an actor with very limited singing ability. It is best presented absolutely straight. When a good singer, like Redford, does the number, it can be hard to avoid a few vocal interpretive touches that depart from the song’s powerful simplicity.
Perhaps the show’s most complex character is Charlotte, Count Malcolm’s conflicted and much put-upon wife, who has a love-hate relationship not only with her husband but with her own sexuality. Mel Gumina sings her song, “Every Day a Little Death,” capably, though there are some psychological depths in the character she doesn’t quite reach.
Sue Pinkman is probably the most ambulatory Madame Armfeldt (Desirée’s acerbic, elderly mother) I’ve ever seen, rising from her wheelchair to move about during most of “Liaisons,” her lament about the insistence of younger generations for forming relationships based on love rather than worldly gain. In one of the show’s best lines, she refers to sex as but “a pleasurable means to a measurable end.” Her consistent vigor makes her last-minute instant death — an aspect of the show that has never worked in any production I’ve seen or participated in — even less credible than usual.
Interestingly, Sondheim gives what used to be called the “11 o’clock number” to a relatively minor character, Anne’s maid Petra. Cody Boehm gives a rousing rendition of “I Will Marry the Miller’s Son,” an anthem to the playful enjoyment of carnality combined with melancholy about the limits of opportunities for lower-class women.
The show’s successful ensemble singing is not limited to the quintet, with complicated numbers like the first-act counterpart trio among Fredrik, Anne, and Henrik and the wondrous first-act finale, “A Weekend in the Country,” being prime examples. Lucia LaNave deserves credit not only for the production’s vocal virtues but the playing of the orchestra, which generally grappled well with Sondheim’s always-challenging score.
Regiec keeps the complex relationships among the ensemble cast clear, adding some lovely details I haven’t seen in other productions, such as not only Count Malcolm but Fredrik and his party arriving at Madame Armfeldt’s estate in their motorcars, as befitting male rivals trying to one-up each other. Phillip Smith-Cobbs’ choreography, above all in the opening quintet and “Night Waltz” sequences, is graceful and flowing, in keeping with the mood and ¾ time signature of the score.
The set, designed by Regiec and Skip Gresko, relies primarily on a wide variety of small pieces, like furniture and trees, being wheeled or pushed on and off stage by cast members. Given the number of scene changes in the show, this process cumulatively adds to the production’s lengthy running time. There is also extensive use of the theater’s fly space, with the flown-in outlines of Madame Armfeldt’s estate being a nice touch.
Hugh Wheeler’s 1973 book has not aged as well as Sondheim’s music, and to audiences accustomed to the more sung-through musicals of more recent years (including many of Sondheim’s), some of the dialogue scenes may feel a bit slow. But that it is easy to forgive given the vocal splendors of Reston Community Players’ production. Whether for first-time viewers or longtime Sondheim fans, the singing here is not to be missed.
Running Time: Three hours, including one intermission.
A Little Night Music plays through October 30, 2022 (at 8 pm on October 15, 21, 22, 28, and 29 and at 2 pm on October 23 and 30) presented by Reston Community Players performing at the Reston Community Center, 2310 Colts Neck Road, Reston, VA. Tickets ($30 for adults and $25 for juniors and seniors) may be obtained online, from Reston Community Players at 703-476-4500, or in person at the Reston Community Center’s box office.
The playbill for A Little Night Music is online here.
COVID Safety: Masks covering mouth and nose are worn by all persons while inside the Reston Community Center regardless of vaccination status, at the request of the Reston Community Players.