Sean Mathias made his directorial name several years back with a Royal National Theater production of “Uncle Vanya,” but his beautiful revival at the same address of “A Little Night Music” marks his most thoroughly Chekhovian staging yet. Chekhov’s comic melancholia has always informed this Stephen Sondheim musical, whose characters’ ready witticisms fall away to reveal an erotic ache forever spilling into farce. But while the barbs remain intact — many of them worthy of Coward or Wilde — the musical has acquired an affective sweep as vast as the Olivier stage.
In the past, one admired “A Little Night Music” at a distance for its cleverness and rue and for its weighty provenance in a film by Ingmar Bergman; on this occasion, and for the first time in my experience, one is swept away by its compassion and heart.
The emotional center of the evening — and sure to be its main talking-point — is the Desiree Armfeldt of Judi Dench, playing a touring actress who could be a Scandinavian cousin to the preening Arkadina played by Dench last year in a National “Seagull.” Not known primarily for her musical credits — she was London’s first Sally Bowles in “Cabaret” but left the original cast of “Cats” due to injury — Dench emerges as such a natural Desiree that it’s as if a lifetime immersion in the classical repertoire existed to inform this one performance.
The actress makes her solo entrance from behind a curtain at the rear of the stage, stepping forward grandly dressed in gold and sporting a hat that looks ready to take wing. On the provincial circuit playing Hedda, Dench gets every laugh enumerating the obscure towns soon to be blessed with Desiree’s presence.
Her take on the role, though, extends far beyond the comedy of narcissism. Referring to the “cracks in the plaster” as she pats her cheeks, this Desiree is self-absorbed but never self-deluded: Indeed, part of what makes her “Send in the Clowns” so wrenching — Dench’s inimitable throatiness aside — is its function as self-criticism. This is a keen, sharp-eyed woman devoted to making a “coherent existence” out of life’s muddle, an acute observer of human foibles destined to play the clown.
Dench gives an unmistakably great performance, but she is by no means alone in a production that further proves Mathias’ instinctual talent for casting (Kathleen Turner in his Broadway “Indiscretions” notwithstanding). Patricia Hodge’s Countess could be merely a neurotic version of her Gertrude Lawrence in “Noel and Gertie”; instead, the head gently rocking with pain during “Every Day a Little Death,” she takes Sondheimian marital self-loathing to tragicomic heights.
“Who would ever be happy to meet me?” she snaps, minutes after admitting “love’s insane.” That insanity, of course, constitutes the primary flirtation of the Countess’ lonely life: The entire performance is a study in keeping in (often hilarious) check emotions so ferocious that it is no surprise the Countess leads Madame Armfeldt’s (Sian Phillips) second-act toast to death.
As for Phillips, those wanting a campy update of Hermione Gingold’s celebrated turn will be in for a surprise, beginning with the first sight of her younger self at the start of the show, glimpsed through a scrim buoyantly waltzing. The actress, Dench’s contemporary, plays Desiree’s mother as a wistful sage — a survivor of endless regal equivalents to those dalliances that the lovers gathered on her estate are forever tumbling in and out of.
Singing “Liaisons” perched atop the revolving set, she is as comically reflective about the ways of the heart as the younger Armfeldts and Egermans — Joanna Riding’s cruelly sultry virgin-bride Anne among them — are eager and obsessive. (The exception: Claire Cox’s thin-voiced Fredrika, Desiree’s daughter , who barely registers.) Completing the distaff lineup of lovers is Petra, the Egerman family maid who yearns to marry “The Miller’s Son” and is played by Issy van Randwyck with a lustful exuberance that as often as not becomes silly.
The trio of leading women are formidable, to say the least, and the men in their clutches don’t always exert the same authority. Returning to the show in which he originated Carl-Magnus (and repeated the part in the Hal Prince film), Laurence Guittard is a rather dull Fredrik, his voice a touch frayed.
Lambert Wilson’s Carl-Magnus, the adulterous dragoon whose candid duplicity has driven his wife to drink, isn’t puffed-up enough to merit the full attack of the Countess'”My Husband the Pig,” a song cut the first time around and restored at Mathias’ request. (He is, however, a stirring vocal partner to Fredrik on “It Would Have Been Wonderful.”)
Best of the lot is Brendan O’Hea’s sweetly earnest Henrik — in the Chekhov analogy, the character is both this musical’s Trofimov and its Constantin — who would happily forsake study of Martin Luther for some good sex.
Rather than shying away from the Olivier expanse, the physical staging makes full use of the thrust stage. “Remember” begins with several of the choral quintet singing from elevations at either side while Desiree fixes her gaze on Fredrik. In “A Weekend in the Country,” choreographer Wayne McGregor moves the cast across a virtually bare stage, the different locations entirely clear from the witty blocking.
And while longtime Mathias collaborator Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set will strike some as underdressed, it’s in some ways his most sophisticated yet — a minimal use of furniture and fabric that always leaves the show room to breathe, even as the occasional tableau (a lawn full of parasols, the magical lifting of a chandelier as if to mock the same effect in “Phantom of the Opera”) takes the breath away. Among an outstanding design team, Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes included, only Mark Henderson’s lighting disappoints, too often substituting murkiness for an evocative mood. (Quieter stage machinery might be nice, too.)
In some ways, the most intriguing moment comes near the beginning when the ensemble moves into position, seemingly imprisoned by the ruthless beat of the waltz. Is the suggestion that the characters’ fates are preordained, their roundelays rigidly controlled? Or is it a hint of the mortality to come, whose relentless approach can be felt in this production from its gauzy, ethereal start? The answer is up for grabs in a staging as dreamy and compulsive as life itself. What I do know is by the time Desiree gets to her 11th-hour question, “Isn’t it bliss?,” there is barely a member of the audience who won’t be thinking, yes.