Broadway recently paid homage to standout revivals of “Company” (1970) and “Into the Woods” (1987), and the coming months offer more intriguing possibilities: the Signature Theater in Arlington, centered in Sondheim, is transforming its new season in a true retrospective, offering three Sondheim musicals, including the rare “Pacific Overtures”, from 1976, directed by Ethan Heard, recently appointed associate artistic director of the company.
There is a deep thirst that Sondheim satisfies, for intelligence and syntactic rigor in a form that, in lesser hands, comes across as dull and lazy. Artists, of course, such as Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jason Robert Brown, Jeanine Tesori, David Yazbek and Michael R. Jackson are worthy defenders of standards. But Sondheim’s unparalleled ability to weld words to notes, to find music and rhyme in the most startling nooks and crannies of language, sends me back to his shows in an almost compulsive way. Sondheimism is my own pleasant disorder.
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My last encounter was this weekend in this Berkshires town and a production of “A Little Night Music”, the winning romantic farce Tony Sondheim wrote with librettist Hugh Wheeler in the early 1970s. entirely successful Barrington Stage Company is notable for the high-end leads it has recruited. The cast is led by the handsome and finely-tuned couple of Jason Danieley as Fredrik Egerman and Emily Skinner as Desiree Armfeldt, the amorous Swedish stage vet who seeks to reignite the flame of youthful passion.
The score, consisting of a series of waltz variations, is based on Ingmar Bergman’s comedy “Smiles of a Summer Night” and is Sondheim’s most seductive. It includes the number that put an end to the duck that he could not write with emotion or melodious richness: “Send in the Clowns”, here interpreted by Skinner with seductive finesse. Wheeler’s book, on this occasion, however, shows signs of old age. Half a century proves inordinately long for a comedy of sex mores to hold water, not least because at its center — in a 1905 musical — is the marriage of a middle-aged lawyer and a an 18-year-old girl (Sabina Collazo’s Anne Egerman). As a child, Anne notes, she called Fredrik “uncle”.
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What might once have struck audiences as comically benign is now slightly disconcerting – much like the pun lyrics to “That Would Have Been Wonderful,” a lament song for Fredrik de Danieley and a rival of Desiree, Count Carl- Magnus Malcolm (Cooper Grodin): “If she had only been sulky – or bristly – or bulky – or bruised,” they sing to each other. Eesh. You can factor in how long a play was written, but musicals live and breathe in our moment. It surprised me last month that “Into the Woods” rose in my rating, thanks to Lear deBessonet’s extraordinary production at the St. James Theatre, and here, director Julianne Boyd’s “A Little Night Music” lowered the show on my canon list.
Nothing, however, will ever quench my esteem for the The Act 1 finale, “A Weekend in the Country,” a witty round robin of wacky intrigue that triggers the settling of scores in Act 2. On the Boyd-Quinson stage of Barrington, the number further underscores the vital role of Countess Charlotte Malcolm, the beleaguered wife of the womanizing Earl, and played here wonderfully by Sierra Boggess. Who knew the former star of Broadway’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ could so beautifully embody the scorched ends of betrayal?
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Some of the limitations of this “nocturnal music” are technical: a seven-member orchestra conducted by Darren R. Cohen sounds thin in a 520-seat hall; when it comes to the sublime orchestrations of Jonathan Tunick, only the full range of flavors will do. (I may have been spoiled by the ears of the “Into the Woods” experience, with an orchestra more than twice the size.) A few of the supporting performances sound one-dimensional. And the lyrical technique of the musical’s Greek Choir Quintet, often called the singers Liebeslieder, overwhelms some of the lyrics.
The trip to Pittsfield nevertheless proved beneficial. In a field in eternal search of true inspiration, Sondheim’s scores represent for me a kind of perfection — or at least, an artist’s indomitable effort to achieve it. So I’m going to do this trick, even if the results aren’t perfect.
A little night music, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler. Directed by Julianne Boyd. Sets, Yoon Bae; choreography, Robert La Fosse; musical direction, Darren R. Cohen; costumes, Sara Jean Tosetti; lighting, David Lander; sound, Leon Rothenberg. With Sophie Mings, Kate Day Magocsi, Slater Ashenhurst, Adam Richardson, Rebecca Pitcher, Stephanie Bacastow, Andrew Marks Maughan, Leslie Jackson. About 2 hours 40 minutes. Through August 28 at the Boyd-Quinson Stage, 30 Union St., Pittsfield, Mass. 413-236-8888. barringtonstageco.org.