PITTSFIELD — In Act 2 of Berkshire Theatre Group’s stirring production of a “A Little Night Music,’’ the onetime courtesan Madame Armfeldt grandly proposes a toast as her weekend guests look on: “To life!’’
The smiles drain from their faces when she adds: “And to the only other reality — death!’’
What a party-pooper. But she’s a truth-teller, too. Yes, life is busting out all over Madame Armfeldt’s estate as would-be lovers pursue their wayward passions and scheme to undermine their rivals, but the chill of mortality is never entirely absent.
In other words, we’re in Stephen Sondheim country. And what a satisfying place it is to be, at least for those of us who cherish this singular composer, now 84. Even more directly than usual, Sondheim wrestled with one of his lifelong preoccupations in this 1973 musical: namely, the perpetually conflicted yearnings of the human heart and how it must struggle to explain itself to the ever-skeptical human brain.
Frequent Sondheim collaborator Harold Prince, who directed the original Broadway production, once described “Night Music’’ as “whipped cream with knives.’’ In his 2010 book, “Finishing the Hat,’’ Sondheim dryly remarked that Prince “was more interested in the whipped cream and I was more interested in the knives.’’ Ethan Heard, director of the Berkshire Theatre Group production, seems to be interested in both. His “Night Music’’ has a certain emotional eloquence and a lovely dreamlike quality, but Madame Armfeldt’s “other reality’’ is there, too, thrumming beneath the surface.
At times, though, this “Night Music’’ runs into patches of dead air, largely stemming from the infelicities of Hugh Wheeler’s book. As with his script for 1979s’s “Sweeney Todd,’’ Wheeler’s dialogue in “Night Music’’ is marred by stilted exchanges and clunky transitions. For instance: In the middle of a conversation with the actress Desiree Armfeldt (Maureen O’Flynn), the lawyer Fredrik Egerman (Gregg Edelman) suddenly blurts out: “Well, I think it’s time to talk about my wife, don’t you?’’ It’s an awfully ham-fisted setup for the brilliantly witty duet that follows, “You Must Meet My Wife.’’
Fredrik and Desiree, former lovers who have reunited after more than a decade, are the principal protagonists in a who-will-end-up-with-whom guessing game that forms the plot of “Night Music,’’ which was inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film “Smiles of a Summer Night’’ and is set in turn-of-the-20th-century Sweden. The middle-age Fredrik is married to 18-year-old Anne (Phillipa Soo), but their union has yet to be consummated, nearly a year after their wedding. His brooding and melodramatic son, Henrik (Matt Dengler), is in love with Anne, though he channels his ardor into a bout of inept sex with the household’s maid, Petra (Monique Barbee).
As for Desiree, she is embroiled in an affair with the very pompous and very married Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Graham Rowat). His wife, Countess Charlotte Malcolm (Kate Baldwin), resolves to seduce Fredrik, partly as revenge against Desiree (who is still in love with Fredrik) and partly in hopes of inflaming the Count’s jealousy and winning him back. Watching it all unfold are Madame Armfeldt (Penny Fuller) and her teenage granddaughter, Desiree’s daughter, Fredrika (Emma Foley).
O’Flynn, who has spent much of her career in opera, sings beautifully, and she delivers an appealingly matter-of-fact “Send in the Clowns,’’ devoid of the histrionics into which that chestnut tempts many performers. But overall her Desiree lacks the captivating aura that would explain the bevy of suitors the actress attracts even as her career begins to fade. Edelman has a firmer fix on Fredrik: Beginning with his solo “Now,’’ wherein the lawyer maps out strategies for seducing his wife, Fredrik has the rueful self-awareness of a man who keeps getting caught in ridiculous situations but is not himself ridiculous.
Soo excels as Anne, though she appeared to be undermiked during parts of the performance I attended. Equally excellent are Rowat and Baldwin, who are married in real life, as the Count and Countess. Rowat’s Count is an amusing portrait in self-important obliviousness, while Baldwin’s Charlotte compels both our sympathy and our respect, as the character’s broken anguish vies with her attempt to hold on to her dignity. When Baldwin and Soo team up for “Every Day a Little Death,’’ a song about the humiliations and disappointments of married life, it seems to expand to an existential lament, and you can hear a pin drop inside the Colonial Theatre.
Deftly portraying the sensual Petra, Barbee adds a layer of subtlety to “The Miller’s Son,’’ in which the maid asserts her determination to live it up sexually before settling into marriage. Gazing out at the audience as if seeking our understanding, Barbee communicates not just the song’s defiant hedonism but also its logic. She’s not just crowing; she’s making a case as she sings Sondheim’s lines: “It’s a very short road/From the pinch and the punch/To the paunch and the pouch and the pension/It’s a very short road to the ten-thousandth lunch/And the belch and the grouch and the sigh/In the meanwhile, there are mouths to be kissed before mouths to be fed/And a lot in between in the meanwhile/And a girl ought to celebrate what passes by.’’
Yep, and the rest of us ought to celebrate the man who can see that far and write that well. This “Little Night Music’’ is as good a place as any to do that.