Herbert Wolff Reviews "A Little Night Music"

Jul 12, 2014

For those fortunate enough to see it, the Berkshire Theatre Group production of A Little Night Music will likely be the highlight of the 2014 summer season. A Little Night Music – along with possessing a superbly written story based on an Ingmar Bergman movie, Smiles of a Summer Night – has music and lyrics by the incomparable Stephen Sondheim and book by his late collaborator, Hugh Wheeler. In addition to its pedigree, this current presentation has a cast that could open next week on Broadway.

A Little Night Music began its original New York run in 1973, winning Tony Awards for best musical, best original book, and best musical score. Following some 600 Broadway performances, the show toured the U.S. and the world. Hit recordings of its best-known song – Send in the Clowns – were made by Frank Sinatra and Judy Collins. Recent revivals of A Little Night Music have ensued in New York and London. But you need go no further than Pittsfield, Massachusetts, to understand its powerful popularity.

The story that unfolds on stage is a bit difficult to explain. It’s more about infidelity than fidelity…and more about regret than pleasure.

The setting is Sweden around 1900. A successful middle-aged lawyer, Fredrik, is married to 18-year-old, Anne, who has yet to consummate the marriage. His young wife actually seems more interested in his serious son, Henrik, who is studying for the ministry. Into this mélange comes Desiree, the lawyer’s former lover, who is starring in a local theater production. A glamorous if aging actress, Desiree is having her own affair with Count Carl-Magnus, who is married to Charlotte.

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Observing – and disapproving of – this round-dance is Madame Armfeldt, the mother of Desiree and grandmother of Fredrika, Desiree’s daughter who “just happened,” as her mother puts it. Madame Armfeldt laments in song, What Happened to Refined Liaisons? She proposes that a gathering at her summer palace would bring clarity and happiness because a summer night smiles three times: first on the young, second on fools, and third on the old. She sends formal invitations to all to spend – and all accept, again in song – A Weekend in the Country, which with wit and voice and choreography, brilliantly concludes the first act. 

The second act – where miscreants and the pious alike gather – begins at the country estate. It is here that Desiree reflects on her life and the lives of others, with Send in the Clowns. An interesting sidelight to that song: in his recent autobiography, Finishing the Hat, Stephen Sondheim writes that while collaborating on West Side Story, Leonard Bernstein advised him that a lyricist needn’t always fill every beat of every measure of a song. Thus, taking Bernstein at his word, we hear: “Isn’t it Rich?  Isn’t it Queer?  Losing my timing this late…in my career.”

That great song has much more depth and much more meaning in the context of the show for which it was written – especially when perfectly delivered by Maureen O’Flynn. But, be assured that every member of this cast – under the stage direction of Ethan Heard and music direction of Nathan Dame – is fabulous. They coalesce to make this a magical, unforgettable theater treat.

A Little Night Music, produced by Berkshire Theatre Group on the stage at the beautifully restored Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, plays now through July 19th.