Ingmar Bergman's movies have proved a great source of inspiration for musicians and movie folk, from Woody Allen and Wes Craven to Bill and Ted. Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night, a story of high-strung family relationships set in Sweden, seems well-suited to a Stephen Sondheim musical. After all, the composer has a penchant for dark themes that complement Bergman's melancholy mood pieces. But A Little Night Music is something different -- a romantic comedy with a light-hearted tone, bawdy subplots, and a droll Greek chorus of singing bon vivants.
Sondheim's exquisite score is written mostly in 3/4 time, giving it a gentle yet insistent rhythm. The story touches all the bedroom farce bases with an amused tip of its hat to the genre -- there's an elder man enthralled by his innocent teenaged wife and a more experienced woman, a chaste young man tempted by a forbidden relationship, a cuckold, a sagacious maternal figure, and a cheeky maid. The characters know that they're being silly but carry on anyway, slaves to their desires.
Bill Schlitt plays Fredrick, a well-to-do lawyer whose intentions aren't always honorable. His rekindled interest in old flame Desiree (Keely Enright) enrages her lover, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Dusty Bryant), a strutting soldier with the facial expression of a bulldog chewing a wasp. Carl-Magnus is married to Charlotte (Cat Cook), who attempts to teach Desiree a lesson by seducing Fredrick. Charlotte's best pal is none other than Anne (Laura Ball), Fredrick's wife. Round and round they go in a fractured waltz of wooing, taking turns to delight and spite one another.
The mood and pace are set by the playful banter and lyrics, and also by a charming performance from Bill Schlitt. Sporting a Max von Sydow beard, he's world-weary enough to make Fredrick believable but retains a wide-eyed air of naiveté for those moments when life throws him a curveball. This is a guy who loses one love, finds another, and is almost killed in one day -- and we care about him when it happens. Getting the audience to empathize with a cheating Swedish lawyer is quite a feat.
As his confidante and soulmate Desiree, Keely Enright tackles her first musical theatre role with enthusiasm, an appropriate response to a character who's happily associated with chaos. Her take on "Send in the Clowns," one of Sondheim's best known songs, is restrained, so it doesn't get sappy. "Clowns" is followed by the underrated "The Miller's Son," performed by Lora Jacobs, who makes a perfect Petra and carries a fun subplot with ease.
Laura Ball cannily handles the complexities of a character who isn't as naive as she first appears. Anne von Kolnitz as Madame Armfeldt and Johanna Schlitt (Bill's daughter) as Frederika also make the most of their roles. Unfortunately, they can't always be heard, and they're not the only ones. Five musicians add to the sumptuous atmosphere, but drown out several lines -- Kolnitz' solo, "Liaisons," is particularly difficult to make out. Early in the production, she tells Fredericka to practice her piano playing "with the soft pedal" -- advice the musicians would do well to heed.
Bill and Johanna Schlitt were both in Into the Woods, the previous co-production between The Village Repertory Co. and The Company Company, of which Bill is producing director. His wife Maida Libkin directs this show and creates some fine stage pictures. They're putting it on because they love Sondheim's work, and it shows in a feast of beautiful music, assured performances, and clever set design. While Into the Woods sometimes seemed overambitious for the Playhouse, A Little Night Music fits just right. For non-Mt P. residents, the humor, songs, and settingall make this show worth going the extra mile.