Infidelity never goes out of vogue, whether it’s New York governors or Swedish aristocrats — as in Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film, “Smiles of a Summer Night,” or Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s stage adaptation, “A Little Night Music.” The perpetually tuneful 1973 show is now receiving a stylishly austere revival at Baltimore’s Center Stage.
A seasoned cast under director Mark Lamos handles the assorted adulterous couplings with ease, bringing out the comic melodrama inherent in all that marital stress. This is achieved with clockwork precision, but the downside of that is the genuine emotions in Sondheim’s music and lyrics and Wheeler’s book too often are played for laughs at the expense of pathos.
This production’s moments of heartfelt feeling serve as reminders of the sentiment missing in this smartly conceived and smoothly paced package.
At the emotional end of the spectrum, the young, idealistic and quasi-suicidal seminary student Henrik Egerman is potentially a foolish character, but Josh Young brings such sincerity to his melancholic number, “Later,” that more serious undertones rise to the surface.
Henrik fears he’s in love with his 18-year-old stepmother, Anne (Julia Osborne), which makes him all the more afraid of his overbearing father, Fredrik (Stephen Bogardus). Osborne and Bogardus give fine performances, but they skim the comic surface, and Osborne’s singing tends to the shrill when it should be sweet.
The tuner’s messy amorous complications include Fredrik reigniting an affair with an old lover, self-dramatizing actress Desiree Armfeldt (Barbara Walsh), proving that middle-aged lovers can be every bit as ardent and foolish as the younger crowd.
Walsh (Joanne in the recent Broadway “Company” revival) does a good job with the musical’s signature tune, “Send in the Clowns,” although her straightforward delivery fails to milk the song for all its sentimental worth.
The talented cast includes Polly Bergen speaking with lived-in authority as Desiree’s elderly mother, Madame Armfeldt; Bergen holds her own with the memory of the original Broadway star Hermione Gingold.
Maxwell Caulfield is hilarious as Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, a stuffed shirt who might as well be a tin soldier, and Mattie Hawkinson, Jonathan C. Kaplan, Sarah Uriarte Berry and Kate Baldwin all give assured perfs.
The actors’ diction is crisp in a witty show where clarity of the lyrics really matters, with much of the credit due to music director/arranger Wayne Barker and his musicians.
The relatively spare set by Riccardo Hernandez is a mixed blessing. Its reliance on the theater’s backing brick wall, several chandeliers, a few pieces of period furniture, a couple of Old Master-style erotic paintings, and empty gilded picture frames conveys the Swedish country house setting, but it’s an emotionally cool place.
There’s no lush birch forest in which to reflect. Maybe the near-empty, non-lyrical set explains why the generally animated acting sometimes seems more athletic than contemplative.
Other tech credits are lovely, including Chase Brock’s fluid choreography, Candice Donnelly’s black-and-white costumes for aristocrats and servants alike, and Robert Wierzel’s sensitive lighting for Sondheim’s beautiful night music.