“Send in the Clowns,” Stephen Sondheim’s most famous and most popular song, is a lover’s lament that has been recorded by a who’s who list of performers. So anticipation builds before the song is heard late in the second act of A Little Night Music, now playing at Arlington’s Signature Theater. Holly Twyford, playing the fading actress Desiree Armfeldt, doesn’t disappoint, delivering each line with so much emotion one can imagine silent tears being shed by many listeners reliving past romantic tragedies. When the last notes fade away, there is a moment of silence, the audience catching its breath before bursting into applause. Twyford’s solo is a high point in a production with many high points, a credit to director Eric Schaeffer’s deft hand and appreciation for all things Sondheim. (This is Signature’s 28th Sondheim production, and the theater is also home to the Stephen Sondheim Award Gala that honors artists in the musical theater.)
Holly Twyford and the Ensemble (Photo by Paul Tate DePoo III)
With music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, A Little Night Music was inspired by the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night, which followed the romantic lives of several couples. The score is daunting, with nearly all the music written in waltz time. In addition, there are key changes and high notes, presenting challenges to both male and female singers. (The musical is often performed by opera companies and was added to the New York City Opera Company’s repertoire in 1990.) Then, of course, there are those complex Sondheim lyrics, as well as Wheeler’s dialogue which requires actors who appreciate comic timing.
Holly Twyford and Bobby Smith (Photo by Christopher Mueller)
Signature’s cast, anchored by the ever-reliable Bobby Smith, is more than up to the challenge. The Liebeslieders, six members (Kevin McAllister, Quynh-My Luu, Maria Egler, Benjamin Lurye, and Susan Derry), functioning as a Greek chorus, deliver “Overture” that gets the show off to an exuberant start. Not only does each actor in this small ensemble have a strong voice, but each manages to create a distinct persona as the action unfolds.
Befitting Sondheim’s music and lyrics, the plot, too, is complex. During the height of her stage career, Desiree traveled around the country, leaving her daughter, Fredrika (Anna Grace Nowalk) to be raised by her grandmother, Madame Leonora Armfeldt (Florence Lacey). Despite the physical distance, Desiree and Fredrika have remained close and, with fewer engagements on her horizon, the actress is thinking of returning home.
Bobby Smith and Will Gartshore (Photo by Christopher Mueller)
Fredrik Egerman (Smith) had a long, passionate relationship with Desiree, but he’s not seen her for many years and is now married for 11 months to the very young and naive Anne (Nicki Elledge), the marriage not yet consummated. Henrik (Sam Ludwig), Fredrik’s son, is committed to entering the seminary, but is hopelessly in love with Anne, who frustrates him with her constant teasing. Fredrik goes to visit Desiree after seeing her perform. They banter back in forth in the comical duet, “You Must Meet My Wife,” which was Smith attempting to celebrate Anne’s virtues, while Twyford delivers one zinger after another. The meeting ends with Twyford agreeing to accommodate Fredrik, yet he’s not the only one sharing her bed. She’s been having an affair with the married Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Will Gartshore), whose day job as a dragoon spills over into his personal life as he bullies and threatens everyone around him, particularly his wife, Charlotte (Tracy Lynn Olivera, in a standout performance).
Maria Rizzo (Photo by Christopher Mueller)
Maria Rizzo, who won raves in Signature’s productions of Cabaret and Gypsy (see the interview where she talks about those shows), digs into her role as Petra, Anne’s handmaid who tries to school her mistress in the ways of the flesh. Rizzo’s considerable vocal talents are on full display in “The Miller’s Son.”
Act I ends with the well-known “A Weekend in the Country,” foreshadowing the coming together of this group of lovers. What follows in the second act includes a contentious dinner party, assignations, a duel, an elopement, a death, and, for some, a happy ending.
Holly Twyford (Photo by Christopher Mueller)
Once again, the strong voices of the cast are complemented by an outstanding orchestra conducted by Jon Kalbfleisch. Scenic design by Paul Tate Depoo III with lighting by Colin K. Bills, transforms wooden strips into a glittery curtain. Costume Designer Robert Perdziola wins extra points for the sparkling red dress worn by Twyford in the second act. Anne Nesmith (see her interview) works magic with her wig designs, making the actors look natural and period perfect.
A Little Night Music begins Signature’s new season on a high note.
Top photo: Paul Tate DePoo III
A Little Night Music
By Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler
Directed by Eric Schaeffer
Through October 8, 2017
4200 Campbell Avenue