Encore’s "A Little Night Music" takes a rueful look at love


Encore Theatre's A Little Night Music

Sebastian Gerstner stars as the obnoxious Carl-Magnus and Leah Fox is his exasperated wife, Countess Charlotte, in Encore Theatre's production of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music.

Encore Musical Theatre continues its love affair with Stephen Sondheim with A Little Night Music, Sondheim’s wistful and rueful look at love.

Night Music, with music and lyrics by Sondheim and book by Hugh Wheeler, was, as the Encore program notes “suggested by” one of Ingmar Bergman’s rare comedies, Smiles of a Summer’s Night. The setting is still Sweden at the turn of the 20th Century. A successful lawyer has recently married a much younger woman who has remained virginal during their eight months of marriage. She has developed a growing attraction to the lawyer’s seminarian son, who is wrestling with deep sexual conflicts of his own.

Things become complicated when the lawyer, Fredrik, comes home with tickets to see the noted stage actress Desiree Armfeldt, an old flame for whom the embers are still glowing. Desiree has started to grow weary of life as a touring actress and her affair with the obnoxious and married Count Carl-Magnus. Fredrik’s troubled married life and his love triangle with Desiree and Carl-Magnus eventually play out in the pastoral setting Desiree’s mother’s country house.

This might sound very serious, and it is, but it’s also serious comedy.

Director Matthew Brennan calls attention to the delicate balance of Night Music in his program notes and does a good job of hitting the right tone between the trivial and the childish and the ironic understanding of maturity. Wheeler’s book combines some moments of low comedy with more subtle and incisive verbal humor. 

Sondheim’s score is rich and often complex in its blending of voices, and his lyrics capture the many faces of love won and lost. The music is a challenge and musical director Joseph D. Daniel does an excellent job of directing the complex Greek chorus of friends and servants, the Liebeslieders, who are constantly commenting on the many aspects of love and memories of love. The voices blend and contrast as they provide the thematic background for the individual voices of the major players. Daniel also directs a small but excellent orchestra. Here Sondheim hovers somewhere between musical comedy and light opera and the setting seems particularly suitable for that approach.

Jay Montgomery plays Fredrik Egerman with a combination of frustration and aching resignation over his child bride. Montgomery makes Fredrik a sympathetic man who realizes his moment of weakness has created an intolerable situation as he sputters in the song "Now." As the play progresses, Montgomery moves convincingly from exasperation to rueful regret to a more mature view of love.

Kristina Riegle is the beautiful, haughty Desiree, who is still beautiful and a magnet for successful men. But her life as a touring actress and trivial affairs have made her homesick for a more settled life with her 14-year-old daughter, Fredrika. Riegle is assured as Desiree but she also suggests something of the careless side of Desiree’s life. The frustration of her situation is expressed in the ironically titled "The Glamorous Life."

Fredrik's child bride, Anne, is naive about sex and life itself. Emily Hadick is sweetly self-absorbed as Anne, alternately bursting with enthusiasm or growing desperate about a flaw in her complexion. She has grown attached to her step-son, Henrik, who is a bit older than her and a seminarian wrestling with strong sexual desires and a foreboding sense of guilt. Hadick does a good job of making those sudden shifts between concern and ridicule.

Clayton Sallee plays Henrik. His performance is a bit tentative at times but he gives a strong burst of self-righteous anger as he calls out the older folks as hypocrites.

Sebastian Gerstner is a perfectly outrageous, smug, caddish Carl-Magnus, a soldier with a complex mixture of sexist disdain and a deep need for women. Gerstner doesn’t overplay the enraged lover but rather plays Carl-Magnus as someone so in love with himself that others are merely around for his amusement or abuse. Gerstner’s timing is perfect as he argues with himself. He sings "In Praise of Women," which nicely sums up his confused ideas.

Comic honors here go to two gifted comic actresses.

Leah Fox plays Countess Charlotte, Carl-Magnus’ depressed and sardonic wife. Fox is hilarious in her deadpan asides, her looks of exasperation and despair and her sharp appraisals of others. She and Hadick express their frustration in "Every Day a Little Death."

Sarah B. Stevens delivers another wonderful comic performance as Petra, the Egerman’s maid. She toys amorously and hilariously with the conflicted Henrik, mugs her opinions of the childish Anne, and takes up with lascivious delight with a lover of her own at the Armfeldt’s. Stevens gets her own musical spotlight with the perfect bawdy song "The Miller’s Son."

Anne Bauman plays Madame Armfeldt, Desiree’s mother, who lives on her memories of past conquests of royals, nobles, and even a businessman now and then. Madame Armfeldt thinks she has failed in conveying her philosophy to Desiree and is working on her attentive granddaughter, charmingly played by Olivia Goosman. Bauman has a wistful number to sum up her life, "Liaisons."

Night Music is, of course, best known for one song, a song in which Sondheim captured the emotions of lost love and missed signals so perfectly and so maturely that it captures the full spirit of the play but also stands alone as an enduring standard for American popular music. A sad oboe plays that haunting introduction and Riegle’s Desiree turns to Fredik and sings softly “Isn’t it rich,” the opening line of "Send in the Clowns." Her rendering is wistful, charming at first, and finally bitterly sad. 

This is a comedy, so it’s no spoiler to say, all’s well that ends well.

Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit. 

"A Little Night Music" is at The Encore Musical Theatre Company, 3126 Broad St., Dexter. The show runs Thursday-Saturday at 7:30 pm and Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm through October 14. For tickets, call 734-268-6200, go to theencoretheatre.org.