One of the particular delights of the 1955 Ingmar Bergman film “Smiles of a Summer Night” is watching Bergman regulars like Gunnar Björnstrand, Harriet Andersson, and Åke Fridell interact. That was also true of Emmanuel Music’s presentation of the 1973 Stephen Sondheim musical “A Little Night Music” — which was “suggested” by “Smiles of a Summer Night” — at Boston Conservatory Theater Saturday evening. Given longtime Boston favorites like Lynn Torgove as Désirée Armfeldt, Bobbie Steinbach as Madame Armfeldt, and David Kravitz as Fredrik Eger-man, one had to expect, at the very least, what Désirée and Fredrik would call a “coherent” production. But what Emmanuel delivered went far beyond coherent.
Emmanuel is of course better known for Bach and Handel than for musical comedy. But Bergman loved Mozart; his film pays tribute to Mozart’s comedies, and that prompted Sondheim to name his musical, which follows closely the plot of Bergman’s film, after “Eine kleine Nachtmusik.” And Mozart got into the act in the Emmanuel production: When Fredrik and Dana Whiteside’s Count Carl-Magnus faced off at Désirée’s house, Fredrik whistled the opening melody of “Eine kleine Nachtmusik,” and a few minutes later Désirée teased Carl-Magnus by humming “Là ci darem la mano,” from “Don Giovanni.”
That was just one of many smart decisions made by Torgove, who was the stage director as well as the Désirée. This was billed as a “concert” production, but Torgove put the stellar Emmanuel orchestra on the Boston Conservatory stage and interspersed the action on risers among the musicians. Bergman’s film is built on a half-dozen love triangles; that inspired Sondheim to write virtually the entire musical in triple time, and Emmanuel’s artistic director, Ryan Turner, was up to the task of distinguishing among mazurka (“The Glamorous Life”), polonaise (“In Praise of Women”), sarabande (“Liaisons”), jig (“A Weekend in the Country”), and the ubiquitous waltz.
The performances were largely unexceptionable, starting with the energetic “Liebeslieder Quintet” of Sonja Tengblad, Jayne West, Majie Zeller, Matthew Anderson, and Sumner Thompson. Kristen Watson as Anne and Jonas Budris as Henrik started a bit awkwardly, but they grew into their difficult roles, she Fredrik’s teenage second wife, he Fredrik’s teenage son from the first marriage.
Whiteside was brusque and brooding as the chauvinistic Carl-Magnus; Krista River was bright, calculating, and finally tender as the count’s wife, Charlotte. Kellie McKay was a sexy, frolicsome Petra, though her solo, “The Miller’s Son,” could have been more intelligible.
Steinbach milked her every line expertly — she wouldn’t have been such a wonderful Madame Armfeldt if she hadn’t. Kravitz was a lighthearted and endearingly obtuse Fredrik; it was easy to see why Torgove’s Désirée wanted him back. And Torgove proved herself both a wickedly witty comic actress and a touchingly romantic one. She all but whispered “Send in the Clowns,” making it the musical’s emotional center and not just a vocal showpiece. If this is what Emmanuel does with musicals, it should do many more.