When “A Little Night Music” opened on Broadway, composer Stephen Sondheim commented, “The show didn’t really treat sex in a bawdy manner. … We were very polite about it.” Director Scott Ellis is careful to retain the production’s refinement and sophistication, but he makes certain the scenes throb with sensuality. His astute selection of passionate actors emphasizes this heated undercurrent, with the result that every romantic entanglement depicted, from leads to minor characters, has its own individual impact.
Victor Garber was born to play the role of Fredrik Egerman, a middle-aged lawyer whose naive 18-year-old bride, Anne (Laura Benanti), refuses to consummate their marriage. Garber is thoroughly at home with the challenging vocal demands of Sondheim’s intricate music, and he gives each witty line an emotional charge. His poignant response to spousal rejection makes it understandable and acceptable that he would dash to Desiree (Judith Ivey), famous actress and his former lover, for sexual solace.
Ivey, facing Garber’s nervous, tentative request for intimacy, delivers her response so irresistibly — “What are old friends for?” — that we know these two belong together. Her Desiree is enchanting because she tosses off cutting Noel Coward-type lines without becoming conventionally bitchy and sacrificing her charm. Ivey is a rare actress who can suggest her current feelings and her past existence simultaneously, so we enjoy the presence of a whole, fully rounded woman.
Under Ellis’ thoughtful direction and insistence on truth, other characters that have been silly and shallow in previous “Little Night” productions are consistently three-dimensional. As Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, Egerman’s mentally dense, macho competitor for Desiree’s affections, Marc Kudisch vigorously repeats the role he performed for New York City Opera. He accompanies an appropriately cocky, strutting attitude with a strong, virile voice. Michele Pawk, an expert comedienne and singer, is stylish and convincing as Kudisch’s enraged, vengeful wife.
Danny Gurwin stands out as Henrik, Egerman’s son, the personification of a dedicated seminary student who can’t fight off his fleshly yearnings. Ignored by his father, teasingly patronized by the stepmother he secretly loves, he’s a raw, exposed nerve of blundering frustration. Gurwin’s execution of “Later,” in which he laments about being “all dammed up inside,” while playing his altar-ego cello, is a memorable moment.
No less memorable is Zoe Caldwell’s Madame Armfeldt, Desiree’s mother, a former courtesan who disdainfully surveys the relationship wreckage around her. Caldwell commands the stage with her quietly reflective “Liaisons,” where she reminisces about affairs with barons, dukes and kings. Most of the time, her perf has a tart, bewitching sting, but she shows her talent for sentiment when recalling a lover she rejected after he gave her a wooden ring. In an unforgettable speech, she speculates, “Who knows … he might have been the love of my life.”
Portraying Egerman’s frivolous virgin bride, Benanti’s vibrant soprano underscores the character’s childlike appeal, and Kristen Bell has a lovely, delicate dignity as Fredrika, Desiree’s daughter.
Ellis keeps a tight rein on Hugh Wheeler’s sprawling cluster of characters, knitting pieces of the puzzle so that the final pairings have a beautiful inevitability. His staging is a visual feast that includes two turn-of-the-century motor cars and a bicycle built for two. Everything is in constant movement (aided by Susan Stroman’s graceful waltz sequences), from lovers Jessica Boevers and Hank Stratton rolling on the lawn, in the show’s most overtly sexual sequence, to Gurwin flinging a rope upward in an clumsy attempt to hang himself.
These lively events are framed by Michael Anania’s sumptuous Monet-colored sets and Lindsay W. Davis’ glittering, bejeweled gowns and feather-topped chapeaux. Jeff Nellis’ lighting strikingly evokes the impressionistic romanticism of the era.
Musical numbers are richly embellished by John DeMain’s orchestra and Jonathan Tunick’s arrangements. Sondheim’s lyrics are so brilliant that you want to savor them, and the overlapping vocal parts for the quintet that supplies running commentary have a tendency to mask masterful lines. With solos, however, these words come across with crystalline clarity. Garber and Ivey extract every shred of humor from “You Must Meet My Wife,” and the ensemble conception of “Weekend in the Country” is an exhilarating first-act closer.
“Send in the Clowns,” predictably, is the major moment crowds wait for, the crucial test that determines whether any “Night Music” is outstanding or ordinary. The good news is Ivey comes through with flying colors. “Clowns” is rarely performed with any deep knowledge of its oblique, subtle content, and Ivey keeps every note new and fresh.
This freshness extends to every aspect of Ellis’ “Night Music,” a production special enough to make even diehard fans of the show feel as if they’re seeing it for the first time.