Cast five veterans who know how to sing, act and play comedy in a production of “A Little Night Music” and you can get away with a meager orchestra and almost nonexistent scenery. The White Plains Performing Arts Center appears to have obvious budgetary constraints, but their pocket-sized version of the 1973 Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler tuner has heart and a handful of respected Broadway-ites who bring full value to the piece.
One might well expect Penny Fuller (recently on Broadway in the late Horton Foote’s “Dividing the Estate”) to make a wonderful Desiree Armfeldt, and she does not disappoint. Fuller perfectly captures this glamorous actress who is, in truth, not very glamorous, this sophisticated woman of the world who turns out to be merely a clown. Fuller, who made her Broadway debut in 1964 replacing Elizabeth Ashley in “Barefoot in the Park,” is almost 20 years older than Glynis Johns was when she created the role of Desiree. But even if she might not look like the mother of a 13-year-old daughter, she knows how to play this role and does especially well with “Send in the Clowns.”
Mark Jacoby also has been around for a while in shows such as “Ragtime” and as Judge Turpin in John Doyle’s recent “Sweeney Todd.” He is funnier than we’ve ever seen him as lawyer Fredrik Egerman, mining the comedy while singing admirably. Jacoby is matched in this by Stephen R. Buntrock, as a volatile Carl-Magnus. Their duet, “It Would Have Been Wonderful,” is a comic highlight.
The least known of the principals, Rachel de Benedet makes a very good Charlotte with just the right mix of strength, nonchalance and jealousy. A comedienne in the Joanna Gleason vein, de Benedet is worth watching. Erin Davie — the young Edie Beale in the Broadway production of “Grey Gardens” — does a good job as child-bride Anne, opposite likable newcomer Eddie Egan as Henrik.
Capping this talented and effective group is Sheila Smith as aged courtesan Mme. Armfeldt. Smith knows how to deliver a line with the best of them — she covered Angela Lansbury in the original production of “Mame” and was a standby for Elaine Stritch in “Company” — and she’s very funny here, giving the book a lift.
The orchestrations have been reduced to six pieces, which can only begin to approximate Jonathan Tunick’s masterful originals. Musical director James Bassi pretty much plays the full score on the piano, with various colors coming from harp, cello, horn and two hard-working wind players. Such is the strength of Sondheim’s work that after 15 minutes or so one mostly accepts the situation, with assorted instrumental solos — retained from Tunick’s orchestration — adding resonance. (It is hoped, though, that next season’s anticipated Broadway revival of the show provides the full orchestra Sondheim’s ravishing score deserves.)
Michael Hotopp’s scenic design is more along the lines of furniture selection, with the show played against a neutral backdrop. Costumes, too, seem borrowed-on-a-budget, but the actors more than make up for the trappings.
Sidney J. Burgoyne’s direction is functional (although one suspects the stage vets might have more or less taken care of themselves). But the use of the quintet — sort of a Greek chorus, Swedish-style — is strained at times. They sing well enough but have been asked to ham things up, sometimes distracting from the principals. The “Perpetual Anticipation” sequence, in which they move Fuller, Jacoby and Buntrock around like figurines, is borderline embarrassing. While these miscalculations might be courtesy of choreographers Melissa Rae Mahon and Sean McKnight, the director presumably asked for it.
“Night Music” marks the seventh musical in two seasons for White Plains. If this is any indication, the nonprofit org is making good on its mission to bring quality productions to this Westchester city, an easy commute from Manhattan.