"A Little Night Music" is arguably Stephen Sondheim's most perfect show, if not his most adventurous, but it loses some luster at South Coast Rep through half-baked directorial decisions.

A Little Night Music” is arguably Stephen Sondheim’s most perfect show, if not his most adventurous, but it loses some luster at South Coast Rep through half-baked directorial decisions. Questionable casting, staging and (especially) design choices will leave aficionados to decide whether several delicious performances and the tastiness of the basic material compensate for the curdled dishes in this smorgasbord.

The act-one setting suggests that helmer Stefan Novinski and designer Sibyl Wickersheimer have been studying the wrong Ingmar Bergman movies — the later ones obsessed with soullessness and repression. They place the action on a bare wooden floor, backed up by plain beige walls and windows. This setting is too obviously symbolic of the characters’ emotional sterility and deprives us of the fun of seeing their follies gradually revealed amid colorful splendor. (An upstage-right birdcage filled with vines — la cage aux foliage? — periodically casts a shadow symbolizing passion breaking out of its prison.)

But if act one’s self-conscious spareness requires us to conjure up elegance, act two’s visual chaos renders elegance impossible. Portions of the interior set incongruously remain among cutout trees painted a color that can only be described as merde brown, with the orchestra shoved into the upper-left corner as light bulbs hanging from wan wires evoke a neighborhood block party.

Shigeru Yagi’s costumes are up to South Coast’s typically eye-popping standard but are less impressive when set against a backdrop reminiscent of a high school production. Even assuming that the clunky entrances and exits of rolling platforms are finally worked out, “A Little Night Music” cannot thrive in an atmosphere of clutter, especially as supplemented by the muddiness and inconsistency of Christopher Akerlind’s moody lighting. (Why should an indoor dinner party look as if it’s al fresco at twilight?)

Setting aside the physical production, the most important of tuner’s six interconnected romantic triangles — stuffy lawyer Egerman (Mark Jacoby), his much younger wedded-but-not-bedded Anne (a lovely Carolann Sanita) and old flame Desiree (Stephanie Zimbalist) — comes through in an admirable mixture of life-and-death seriousness and amused self-awareness.

Assured Broadway vet Jacoby is totally winning in a role for which sympathy is difficult to come by, while Zimbalist’s admirable lack of vanity in her tough-old-broad interpretation intensifies the heartbreak of her rendition of “Send in the Clowns,” the ovation for which is (for once) completely earned. Equally centered is Joe Farrell as Fredrik’s anguished son Henrik, using his cello to work out his unspoken passion for stepmother Anne like Jacob wrestling with the angel.

Other performances suffer from misdirection or miscasting. Anne’s maid Petra (Misty Cotton) is too angular and lacks the voluptuousness to embody the Life Force, as this character must. With no trace of a once-famous courtesan’s continental allure, Teri Ralston’s Mme. Armfeldt is an unrelievedly contemptuous scold, a take that sucks out much of show’s warmth. Amanda Naughton makes Charlotte a doe-eyed soubrette, lofting laugh lines into the audience but totally missing the sorrow and self-loathing of a humiliated wife acting as cat’s paw in her husband’s betrayals.

With an essentially nondance show like “Night Music,” responsibility for musical staging is difficult to pinpoint, but there’s enough opprobrium for Novinski and choreographer Ken Roht to share. Despite the vast stage expanses, waltzes are crabbed and cramped, while “The Glamorous Life” and “Now” are crippled by excessive physical business.

“It Would Have Been Wonderful,” the twin soliloquies between Fredrik and the buffoonish dragoon Carl-Magnus (an amusingly crisp Damon Kirsche), would have been wonderful if its movement had been less random and more attuned to the give-and-take in the lyrics.

Most disappointing of all is “A Weekend in the Country,” the complex, rousing act-one closer. Forcing the ensemble into unison corny gestures (“the panting and the yawns”; finger to cheek on “delightfully droll”; wrist flicks on “playing croquet”) transforms the six separate narratives into just one more ho-hum number that looks like “Born to Hand Jive.” At least they resist inserting a kick line.

A Little Night Music

Segerstrom Stage; 507 seats; $70 top

Production

A South Coast Repertory presentation of a musical in two acts with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, suggested by Ingmar Bergman's film "Smiles of a Summer Night." Directed by Stefan Novinski. Choreography, Ken Roht. Musical direction, Dennis Castellano.

Creative

Sets, Sibyl Wickersheimer; costumes, Shigeru Yaji; lighting, Christopher Akerlind; sound, Drew Dalzell; stage manager, Jamie A. Tucker. Opened, reviewed Sept. 15, 2007. Runs through Oct. 7. Running time: 2 HOURS, 35 MIN.

Cast

Desiree Armfeldt - Stephanie Zimbalist Fredrik Egerman - Mark Jacoby Anne Egerman - Carolann Sanita Countess Charlotte Malcolm - Amanda Naughton Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm - Damon Kirsche Henrik Egerman - Joe Farrell Mme. Leonora Armfeldt - Teri Ralston Petra - Misty Cotton
With: Christopher Carothers, Karen Culliver, Katie Horwitch, Ann Marie Lee, Tracy Lore, Branden McDonald, Kevin McMahon.

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