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Sometimes there’s a lot to be said for playing it straight.
Take the production of “A Little Night Music” now up at the Huntington Theatre Company and playing through Oct. 11. It doesn’t set out to reinvent this much-loved show, familiar as it is. I detected no meta-commentary, no interpretive touches to amp up its relevance or wink through its already-worldly veneer.
Instead, director Peter DuBois meets the material on its own terms and invites the audience to luxuriate in its nooks and crannies. The result is great fun, and it had an opening night audience roaring by the onset of intermission. (It helped that the Act 1 finale, “A Weekend in the Country,” got such an enlivening reading from the full company.)
Haydn Gwynne excels as Desiree Armfeldt, the actress of a certain age who begins to conceive of an different, more “coherent” life — away from the perpetual touring of the theater troupe for which she is the star — when she spies old flame Fredrik Egerman (Stephen Bogardus) in the audience once night. While the leisurely-unfolding plot is that of a farce, the story meditates on themes of order versus chaos, and weighs arguments for and against a libertine life of carnal freedom.
DuBois keeps an eye on the awareness of artifice that’s embedded in Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics and in Hugh Wheeler’s book. The show begins with a nearly-bare stage, with (as far as I could tell) the theater’s actual, exposed brick wall visible all the way upstage. When the last verse of the opening “Night Waltz” calls “bring up the curtain,” a curtain indeed shoots up at the rear of the playing space, as if to mark the boundaries of this place where a few hundred people have gathered to have their imaginations worked upon. The show has begun. Later, when Fredrik and his still-virginal bride Anne (Morgan Kirner, who is suitably bubbly but most impresses with her robust singing voice) visit the theater, they’re seated in the stage-right balcony box of the BU Theatre itself.
All the design elements here work in tune. Throughout the first act, Derek McLane’s scenic design suggests a series of rooms with the help of some gorgeous draperies and a minimum of furniture pieces. Throughout the show’s second act — when a comically unwieldy guest list of lovers, spouses and offspring convenes at the country estate of Desiree’s imperial mother, Madame Armfeldt (Bobbie Steinbach) — a forest of birch trees reminds us of the locale, suggesting the woods as a place to willingly become lost and perhaps found again. Robert Morgan’s period costumes are sumptuous, from the ladies’ evening wear to the dress uniform of Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Mike McGowan), Desiree’s bull-headed paramour.
A 13-member orchestra does splendidly with Sondheim’s score, the bed upon which all his carefully chosen words come cascading down. As the maid Petra, McCaela Donovan handles comic business with aplomb until her big solo, “The Miller’s Son,” when the bawdy servant celebrates the physical enjoyment available before “mouths to be kissed” turn into “mouths to be fed.” Bogardus and McGowan do very well with the dueling monologues of the bittersweet “It Would Have Been Wonderful,” in which it becomes apparent that neither Fredrik nor Count Malcolm really love Desiree for who she is, but rather for who they’d each like her to be. And while Steinbach positively makes a feast of Madame Armfeldt’s worldly one-liners, she touches the bittersweet longing underpinning her solo number, “Liaisons,” which works almost as an anticipatory counterpoint to “The Miller’s Son.”
But the moment of the evening belongs to Gwynne, who is handed, in “Send In the Clowns,” the show’s best-known number. Sure, “Clowns” is all but genetically engineered to tug the heart-strings. But anyone who’s grown numb to it through the many saccharine versions that show no awareness of its essential pathos (I’m looking at you, Susan Boyle) should hear it in Gwynne’s hands. The mix of bitterness, pain and self-reproach with which she spits out “quick, send in the clowns” near song’s end reveals her in complete control of this character.
It’s representative of the patient pleasures found in this rich production.
Jeremy D. Goodwin contributes regularly to The Boston Globe, The ARTery (where he is also an editor), Berkshire Magazine and many other publications. See more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter here.
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