Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music is a nonchalant, funny, somewhat biting romantic spoof that actually feels quite modern for a period piece. Sondheim always injects a tone of cynicism into his work, and Night Music is no exception. Most of the characters belong to the privileged class, but it soon becomes clear their socializing and connecting is burdened by pretension and lame attempts at civility. Fredrik is married to the much younger Anne, though he is clearly smitten with famous actress Desiree, and she with him. She is having an affair with Carl Magnus, a military man who is married to Charlotte. Charlotte is well aware of her husband’s dalliances, and has become very bitter in the process. Henrik, Fredrik’s son, is a minister, and actually a better match for Anne than his dad. He worries at length about the welfare of his and everybody else’s soul.
A Little Night Music is a curious mix of gentleness, regret, skepticism and warmth, reflecting on the foibles of love, vanity, selfishness, and subterfuge. At the outset Madame Armfeldt tells her grand daughter Fredrika the summer smiles three times. Once at children who know nothing. Once at grown-ups who don’t know enough. And once at the elderly, who know too much. The narrative fulfills this lovely, somber bit of wisdom without ever getting corny or quaint. I think one of the reasons “Send in the Clowns” (splendidly realized by Jennifer Kuenzer and John Kuether) is such a cunning fit for this story is that each character, in their turn, plays that role. If you fall in love, sooner or later, you will look ridiculous. But then, if you’re in love, you don’t care. Theatre at its best reveals the characters in all their flawed glory, but does so without judgment. At least by the time the curtain drops.
The sophistication of a A Little Night Music lies in its layers of meaning. It’s very entertaining, and amusing. But most everything in the script cuts both ways. Seemingly careless remarks includes a wiser subtext. Carl Magnus is a pompous buffoon. But he’s lonely in his marriage. His wife Charlotte has the verbal skills of a cobra. but she’s also angry and hurt. All of these points are made with nuance and a kind of gracious detachment, as opposed to so much of the jackhammer tactics we see in comedy today. No one is sloshed with a barrel of drek, or forced to run naked through a crowd, or engaged in a screaming match at the top of their lungs. I say this not as some kind of witness for taste and propriety (sometimes excess is fine) but suggest it can be enlightening how well a different approach can actually work.
Theatre 3’s production of A Little Night Music is blissful, smart, sublime, filled with rage, somber admission, playfulness and delight. It is an adult musical in the best sense of that word: mature, understanding, poised, experienced and just enough moonlight and wistfulness to lift our miserable, damaged hearts.
Theatre 3 presents A Little Night Music (composed by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler) playing June 8th-July 2nd, 2017. 2800 Routh Street, Suite 168, Dallas, Texas 75201. 214 -871-3300. theatre3dallas.com