What’s old is new again this season in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s “A Little Night Music.” Directed by Peter DuBois, this classic musical, set in turn-of-the-20th-century Sweden, follows the romantic intrigues of characters whose lives intersect in scandalous ways.
“A Little Night Music” first premiered on Broadway in 1973 and has been rethought and revived countless times since. The highlight of the show is Sondheim’s gorgeous score, written entirely in the form of a waltz. Songs such as “Send in the Clowns” and “The Miller’s Son” have become staples of musical theater repertoires, performed everywhere from high school music recitals to star-studded Broadway benefits. The challenge, therefore, in reviving “A Little Night Music” lies in how to make the production fresh to audiences who know the show well.
The show opens with five impeccably dressed narrators who set the scene and transport the audience into the glamorous world in which they are to spend the next two and half hours. The narrators, who are never explicitly named, guide the audience through the twists and turns of the main characters’ romantic exploits, seeming at once omniscient and directly involved in the action. While at times the narrators sit directly amid the activity onstage, at other times they are removed from the action and comment from the boxes on the sides of the theater.
At the top of the show, the stage is set with large steamer trunks from which various pieces of the set emerge. As a scene change occurs, dozens of feet of airy fabric emerge from one of the trunks and ascend slowly to the ceiling, as if by magic. These ethereal elements of the set, combined with the classic turn-of-the-century furniture and costumes, lend an air of grandeur and illusion to the show. As with the characters themselves, not all is what it seems in “A Little Night Music.”
Though all of the actors in the show performed their roles to near perfection, the standouts were Morgan Kirner as the young bride, Anne Egerman; Lauren Molina as the jaded Countess, Charlotte Malcolm; and especially Haydn Gwynne as the glamorous actress, Desiree Armfeldt. Kirner, a senior at the Boston Conservatory, sparkled onstage as she flitted about in a frothy pink nightdress, the very picture of youthful spirit and beauty. Molina provided a scathing wit that left audience members clutching their stomachs in laughter. When the two women sang together in “Every Day a Little Death,” the contrast in their appearance nicely underlined the dichotomous natures of their characters. Stephen Bogardus as the aging romantic lawyer Frederik Egerman gave a remarkable performance, and his rivalry with the pompous Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (performed with hilarious gusto by Mick McGowan) provided excellent comic relief.
But the real reason to go see “A Little Night Music” at the Huntington is for the magnificent performance of Gwynne as Desiree Armfeldt. A role that has been performed by the likes of Jean Simmons, Judi Dench and Catherine Zeta-Jones, Desiree is a complicated mix of sensuality and vulnerability. She carries the show and drives the plot forward — it is a tremendous role to take on, even for the most experienced actresses. Gwynne’s presence onstage was impossible to ignore, and her heartbreakingly honest rendition of “Send in the Clowns” gained an impressive and extensive ovation.
The actors’ portrayals of these classic characters are refreshing and wonderful to watch. And while director DuBois remained true to the original intentions of the Sondheim and Wheeler show, his interpretation is of a more intimate kind, with the overall effect being one of enchantment.
The show runs at the Huntington Theatre through Oct. 11. Tickets are $20 for students.