The name Stephen Sondheim is a big draw in theater circles, recognized for the creation of a number of hits, including Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, and Sunday in the Park with George.
Performance Network presents one of Sondheim's best known shows, A Little Night Music, based on an Ingmar Bergman film from the 1950s. The action itself is set near the turn of the 20th century in Sweden, and focuses on the romantic entanglements of several couples spending the weekend together at a country estate. The Broadway production first premiered in 1973, starring Glynis Johns (best known as Mrs. Banks in Disney's Mary Poppins) and introducing the popular ballad "Send in the Clowns." A revivial featuring Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones appeared on Broadway in 2009.
Director Phil Simmons has assembled a fine cast, all well capable of handling the highly demanding score. Clocking in at nearly three hours, the pacing seems at times to drag, at least until the second act. Naz Edwards, last seen onstage at the Network in The Drowsy Chaperone, uses her charm to great effect as Desiree Armfeldt, a glamourous but aging actress who finds herself reduced to touring small towns.
She balances her character's flamboyance with an appropriate amount of melancholy, and plays equally well off both of her married lovers, Frederik (John Seibert) and Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Scott Crownover). Her interpretation of the show's most famous number is infused with such honest tenderness and delicacy that it surely must rank as one of the best.
One of the show's subplots features Desiree's mother, the wealthy aristocrat Madame Armfeldt (Barbara Scanlon), taking charge of her young granddaughter, Frederika (Madison Deadman), and attempting to raise her as she deems appropriate. The underlying affection between the two shines through quite strongly, with Scanlon's dry matriarch finding a foil in Deadman's effervescent adolescent.
As Frederik, John Seibert shows off his sophisticated comedic ability to great effect, particularly when dealing with his rival, Carl-Magnus. Adrienne Pisoni, as his young wife, Anne, sings prettily, but at times seems to be playing only her character's bubbly surface.
There is something to be said for character roles -- quite often, they are the most memorable. Such is the case here. Leslie Hull, in a small but significant role as Petra, the maid, and Eva Rosenwald as the Count's neglected wife, Charlotte, give stellar performances both vocally and acting wise. Both portrayals ring with such a degree of truth that one wishes both of them were afforded more stage time.
As Carl-Magnus, Crownover doesn't shy away from appearing ridiculous, often assuming a vacant expression to further underscore his character's blustery personality. His and Rosenwald's onstage relationship, as dysfunctional as it may be, is decidedly one of the production's highlights.
The set and costume designs by Monika Essen and Suzanne Young, respectively, are wonderfully romantic and are a perfect complement to the tone of the show. Audiences would be well advised to book tickets now, as this is almost guaranteed to be a sell out.
A Little Night Music is certainly a welcome way to ring in the holiday season.
A Little Night Music runs now through Dec. 30. Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; 3 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. For tickets visit www.performancenetwork.org.