Tuesday, March 12, 2024


By Ruth Ross

Often thought of as the “thinking man’s (or person’s) composer of musical comedies,” Stephen Sondheim serves up a veritable smorgasbord of tempos and melodies, not to mention literate lyrics that actually say something profound. If you’re a Sondheim junkie like me or you just love American musical theater, the American Theater Group performs an elegant production of A Little Night Music that ran for one weekend at the Sieminski Theatre in Basking Ridge and will transfer to Hamilton Stage in Rahway for the next two weekends.

“Suggested” by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film, Smiles of a Summer Night, A Little Night Music (book by Hugh Wheeler) recounts the tangled web interlocking romantic liaisons that come to a head during a weekend in the Swedish countryside. Wed to 18-year-old Anne, widowed Fredrik Egerman finds his passion Fredrik for actress Desirée Armfeldt is reawakened during her performance in a French farce, much to the consternation of her lover, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, and the delight of his wife Charlotte! Meanwhile, Fredrik’s socially inept son, dour seminarian Henrik, secretly pines for Anne and attempts to keep his passion in check with a good dose of theology. Realizing her amorous feelings for Fredrik and sets her cap for him Desirée she invites the entire Egerman clan to her mother’s villa for a weekend, a gathering the uninvited Count and his wife crash, throwing the various romantic story lines into disarray with uproarious results.

Director Hunter Foster has reimagined the ATG production by installing three musicians (a piano, cello and harp) at the rear of the stage and abandoning the usual scenery for a series of props to move the action along from place to place. He has also done away with the Quintet—five singers who acted like a Greek Chorus throughout the show—and enlisted the entire cast to appear in the large production numbers. Kudos to choreographer Caitlin Belcik for the success of the latter; no collisions occurred as they nimbly swirl around the stage in complicated patterns! And, given that much of the music in A Little Night Music is set to 3/3 waltz time appropriate for the early 20th setting, these patterns are most appropriate.

Foster has also assembled a multi-cultural cast of great talent, from young Tara Rajan (right) as the wise-beyond-her-years Fredrika Armfeldt to Ruth Gottschall as the dowager Madame Armfeldt (right), a worldly-wise courtesan, mournfully lamenting the sad state of “Liaisons”—where she once got a villa and a wine cellar from a lover, women such as her daughter get nothing of any value from theirs!

As Desiree Armfeldt and Fredrik Egerman, Kate Baldwin (left) and Graham Rowat exude great sexual chemistry (helped, of course, by the fact they are married in real life). He aptly conveys the aches and pains of a middle-aged man dealing with a very young wife (“Now”) and attempting to explain to his old flame why he loves the teenager (“You Must Meet My Wife”). A sexy and wistful Baldwin displays an imperious bravado, mordantly jabs her mother and lovers, attempts to hide a world-weariness ("Send in the Clowns”) and realizes that she is nothing more than an aging actress touring the provinces, playing to half-full houses and entertaining aging and pea-brained admirers.

Lillie Langston (right, with Rowat) is pink confection perfection as teenage Anne Egerman, all curls and giggles, flirtatious as she tempts her husband, then rebuffs him; plots against Desirée with Charlotte; and is not above mercilessly teasing her stepson Henrik, played with a grim face and straitlaced demeanor by Jack Dossett, who reads Martin Luther’ sermons and plays doleful tunes on his cello, barely managing to restrain his sexual urges and attraction to her.

The fourth couple, Count and Countess Malcolm, are also portrayed well by Benjamin H. Moore and Abby Middleton (left). He, a pompous and arrogant male chauvinist, a dimwitted philanderer totally oblivious to the needs of his wife (“In Praise of Women” celebrates his lovers), is heisted on his own petard when Charlotte, suffering pretty much in silence (“Every Day a Little Death”) while trying to maintain some dignity in the face of such disrespect, archly throws herself at Fredrik and is almost successful in seducing him!

And, below stairs, there’s the lusty young maid Petra, played with great verve by Alyssa Wray (right, with Dossett), and who, near the end of the play, performs the multi-tempoed, tongue-twisting “Miller’s Son” without missing a beat! She too is wise beyond her years, knowing that, once she’s married, there will be no time for frivolity so she might as well enjoy it while she can!

While the voices are glorious and the staging smooth, the costumes are underwhelming. Nicole V. Moody has opted for attire of no particular era, with changes effected by the addition of a cape, a scarf, a set of panniers and some draped necklaces. I found the dresses worn by Desiree especially unattractive; they often looked like someone had draped fabric on her body, pinned and sewed it together without regard for the character’s personality and place in life. The other jarring costume was that worn by Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm, a dragoon in the King’s army; his red beret and dark olive uniform looked more like an Egyptian general than a horse soldier.

Lighting cues also seemed a bit off at times, leaving actors in shade or half-lit as they sang and interacted with each other, and the sound was very loud; it could be dialed back a notch or two to avoid hurting the audience’s ears. However, Miles Austin has provided the proper sound for a summer’s night and the clinking of silverware at the formal dinner enacted in pantomime.

If a summer night smiles three times (once for the young, a second for the fools and a third for the old), then I want to add a fourth: a smile for theatergoers who will see this production of A Little Night Music before it closes on March 24.

If you saw and liked ATG’s previous production of Parade, you won’t want to miss A Little Night Music. It’s worth a trip to Hamilton Stage, 360 Hamilton Street, in Rahway.

For information and tickets to A Little Night Music, call the box office at 732-499-8226 or visit online.

Photos by Lianne Schoenwiesner, Spotlights Photography