Michael P. Price has been in no hurry to mount a Goodspeed production of Stephen Sondheim’s 1973 “A Little Night Music,” a musical that has already established itself as a classic worldwide. But some things are worth waiting for: The finesse of this delicately passionate production significantly enhances Goodspeed’s stature. Particularly in act two, director Darko Tresnjak reveals something Harold Prince didn’t in his otherwise incomparable original Broadway production — heart.
“A Little Night Music” is by no means easy to mount, especially on the Goodspeed’s small stage. All the more credit to Tresnjak, his cast and the design team he often works with, and to Peggy Hickey, whose choreography is more deftly dove-tailed movement than actual dance.
There are a few caveats. The Greek chorus of five lieder singers is sometimes too much both physically and aurally in the small Goodspeed. The first act remains coolly distant until its wondrous finale, “A Weekend in the Country.” And set designer David P. Gordon’s dominant use of pale-blue shirred bedroom draperies in act one sometimes seems fussy. But when the rear draperies rise at the end of the act to reveal a full moon over a miniature of Madame Armfeldt’s chateau in a formal garden setting, all’s right with the world.
Other adroit touches include the use of footlights (lighting designer Christopher J. Landy adds additional visual subtleties) and onstage theater boxes to point up the fact that leading lady Desiree is an actress. Linda Cho’s period floor-length women’s costumes are exquisite — mostly muted, with Desiree introduced in contrasting red.
The score has been orchestrated by conductor-pianist Christopher Jahnke for an eight-piece ensemble that may sound undernourished when the cast is in full vocal flight but is mostly the right size for this production.
Because of the importance of the lyrics, clarity is a must. Most of the cast is fine in this respect, notably John Herrera as Fredrik. He may not be a dashing leading man, but that suits the role. He sings and acts with ease and charm, working seamlessly with his admirable Desiree, Leslie Denniston. She’s a strong, brisk presence who dominates the stage whenever she’s in charge of a scene. Here, “Send in the Clowns” is an integral expression of her character.
Another dominant performance comes from M’el Dowd as Desiree’s wheelchair-bound mother. She and her director have apparently opted for her to play Hermione Gingold, the creator of the role, and although Dowd gives a brilliant impersonation and is truly touching in her final scene, she does leave us wondering what her own Armfeldt would be like.
Amanda Naughton is all elegance as embittered Countess Charlotte, and Brad Little is aptly tall, big-voiced and pea-brained as her two-timing husband. Lisa Brescia is almost too physically beautiful as the endlessly seductive maid Petra, which doesn’t stop her from having great fun with “The Miller’s Son,” a song that Tresnjak has incorporated into the musical more firmly than usual.
And Nora Blackall is delightful as Desiree’s daughter. As for Joe Farrell as Fredrik’s son, fighting his sex urges as he tries to serve the church, he’s so good there are times when the whole musical seems to be revolving around him.
Throughout, Sondheim’s ravishing score continues to amaze while his lyrics are, of course, word perfect.