PITTSFIELD — The blaze of creativity with which Stephen Sondheim began and ended the 1970s (”Company” in 1970, “Follies” in 1971, “Sweeney Todd” in 1979) can sometimes obscure the masterpiece that came in the middle of that astonishing run: “A Little Night Music” (1973).
More delicate and dreamlike than the others, it requires a director with a sensitive touch, one who can conjure the aura of enchantment necessary to fully cast its spell, and one discerning when it comes to choosing actor-singers who understand and can do justice to the material.
Check, check, and check. For her final production as artistic director at Barrington Stage Company, Julianne Boyd has crafted an incandescent “A Little Night Music” that makes for one hell of a swan song.
As she prepares to retire from the organization she cofounded nearly three decades ago and built into a potent theatrical force in the Berkshires and beyond, Boyd has chosen for her finale a musical equally laced with heartache and humor. “A Little Night Music” boasts a score that gives cast members abundant opportunities to shine, individually and together. And shine they do at Barrington Stage.
“A Little Night Music” is about second chances, but it is also, importantly, about memory. In the opening “Overture/Night Waltz,” the word “Remember” is a frequent refrain. Act Two transpires on the country estate of an elderly ex-courtesan, Madame Armfeldt (a marvelous Mary Beth Peil, wielding a cigarette holder that looks longer than FDR’s), who lives primarily in memories of her long-ago conquests.
“A Little Night Music” takes a forgiving view of what it calls “the follies of human beings,” even as it demonstrates how disruptive and sometimes destructive those follies can be. Set in Sweden around the turn of the 20th century, it’s a mix-and-match romantic roundelay in which everyone more or less ends up with the person they should (I’d quibble with one pairing). But if love ultimately conquers all, it’s not without complications.
When attorney Fredrik Egerman (Jason Danieley) and actress Desiree Armfeldt (Emily Skinner) meet many years after their relationship ended, they discover their mutual passion has not cooled.
Inconveniently, however, Fredrik is married to young Anne (Sabina Collazo), though they have not — to Fredrik’s immense frustration — yet consummated their marriage. Meanwhile, Fredrik’s comically brooding, sexually repressed son, Henrik (Noah Wolfe), is secretly in love with Anne. The only person in the household who seems to have her head screwed on straight is Anne’s lusty maid, Petra (Sophie Mings).
The dilemmas facing Fredrik, Anne, and Henrik — and the musical’s emphasis on the passage of time — are suggested by three interrelated songs early in the production: “Now,” “Later,” and “Soon.” The songs illustrate one of Sondheim’s specialties: constructing tableaus in which the personalities and private dilemmas of different characters are swiftly sketched, and stakes are quickly established, before they collide and cohere in a complex group portrait.
As for Desiree, her busy stage career has not kept her from a lapse in judgment. She is embroiled in an affair with a married man — the loutish Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Cooper Grodin) — that makes no sense even to her. Countess Charlotte Malcolm (Sierra Boggess), the wife of this military dragoon and buffoon, is also far too good for him.
The story zips along entertainingly. Often generous when it came to praising his collaborators, Sondheim (in his 2010 book “Finishing the Hat”) described Hugh Wheeler’s libretto for “A Little Night Music” as “one of the half dozen best books ever written for a musical.” That overstates the matter a bit, but it’s true that the snap and wit of Wheeler’s libretto comes closer to that of Sondheim’s lyrics than is usually the case.
Harold Prince, the original director of “A Little Night Music,” famously described the musical as “whipped cream with knives,” prompting Sondheim to dryly observe (in “Finishing the Hat”) that Prince “was more interested in the whipped cream and I was more interested in the knives.”
Both the knives and the whipped cream are handled with uncommon adeptness by Boyd & Co., whether in big ensemble numbers like “The Glamorous Life” and “A Weekend in the Country” or in solo numbers.
As Fredrik, Danieley expertly straddles the line between foolish and dashing throughout, suffused with traces of wistfulness. (Desiree’s daughter is named Fredrika, played by Kate Day Magocsi, a fact that is not lost on Fredrik.)
Skinner gives Desiree a worldliness that stops just short of weariness. In her demeanor, including her bitingly witty duet with Danieley on “You Must Meet My Wife,” there’s a faint hint of Bette Davis’s Margo Channing from “All About Eve.” Skinner finds ways to freshen up the much-performed “Send in the Clowns,” incorporating a rueful little laugh into her first enunciation of the title phrase.
As Charlotte, Boggess is wonderful, particularly in the way she gives us glimpses of the wounded sadness beneath the Countess’s sardonic detachment. Her duet with Collazo’s Anne on “Every Day a Little Death” is quietly devastating. As Petra, Mings endows “The Miller’s Son” with a heedless blend of sensuality and seize-the-day spirit, while Peil’s performance of the then-vs.-now “Liaisons” is peerless, right down to her disdainful pronunciation of the word “raisins.”
Hat tips as well to costume designer Sara Jean Tosetti, especially for the lavish gowns with which she has attired the women in the cast, and to scenic designer Yoon Bae for the atmospheric, mauve- and green-accented set. Kudos also to the quintet of actors — Adam Richardson, Rebecca Pitcher, Stephanie Bacastow, Andrew Marks Maughan, and Leslie Jackson — who act as a kind of chorus, establishing moods and setting scenes, and singing beautifully while doing so.
And as for the person most responsible for the general excellence of this production, and of Barrington Stage itself all these years? Take a bow, Ms. Boyd.
A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Hugh Wheeler. Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick. Directed by Julianne Boyd. Musical direction by Darren R. Cohen. Choreographed by Robert La Fosse. Presented by Barrington Stage Company. At Boyd-Quinson Stage, Pittsfield. Through Aug. 28. $25-$85. 413-236-8888, www.barringtonstageco.org