In his book “Finishing the Hat,’’ Stephen Sondheim describes how he was on the verge of bailing from “A Little Night Music’’ when a friend pointed out that writing a score for the proposed musical “would let me show off; I could let loose with verbal dazzle and technical prowess, something I had been able to demonstrate only sporadically before.’’
“So I did, and I showed off, and everyone was impressed,’’ Sondheim wrote.
That latter comment was probably meant sardonically — actually, you can scratch “probably,’’ considering whom we’re talking about — but a new Huntington Theatre Company production of “A Little Night Music,’’ directed by Peter DuBois, reminds us how very impressive this musical remains, more than four decades after its Broadway premiere.
Inspired by the Ingmar Bergman film “Smiles of a Summer Night,’’ with a book by Hugh Wheeler, “Night Music’’ comes about as close to a happily-ever-after ending as Sondheim has ever allowed himself — only, of course, after sundry romantic misadventures have culminated in a complicated mix-and-match, and only after we’ve been made to understand how frustratingly elusive happiness can be.
Composed by Sondheim mostly in waltz time and featuring some of his cleverest and most emotionally astute lyrics, there’s a delicacy to the charms of “Night Music,’’ which is set in Sweden around the year 1900. A fine line has to be walked to avoid any hint of Euro-fustiness, requiring a director with a clear interpretive vision. DuBois, a Sondheim devotee, clearly understands that “Night Music’’ is fundamentally about sexual desire and the silly things it can make people do, whether that desire is acted upon or repressed.
His production emphasizes the destablizing force of desire while adding wit, style, clarity, and top-flight performances to the mix. This is not a “Night Music’’ to break your heart — the emphasis tends to be on humor more than poignancy, with an overall tone of worldly sophistication — but rather one to make you smile at human folly.
The Huntington production includes a version of “Send in the Clowns’’ that captures that song’s rueful, wised-up disillusion as well as any I’ve ever heard (and may help you banish memories of far too many piano-bar renditions). It’s delivered in Act Two by Haydn
Gwynne, whose portrayal of the middle-aged actress Desiree Armfeldt is built not on glamour — the perpetually touring Desiree knows all about the limitations of, as one song has it, “The Glamorous Life’’ — but rather on a cheerfully down-to-earth, game-for-anything insouciance.
That’s in keeping with the approach taken by the rest of the cast, including Stephen Bogardus, who is excellent as Fredrik Egerman, an attorney who rekindles his relationship with Desiree after many years apart. Trouble is, Fredrik is married, to 18-year-old Anne, well played by Morgan Kirner, a senior at the Boston Conservatory. (Other trouble: Their marriage remains unconsummated after nearly a year, a dilemma hilariously alluded to in “You Must Meet My Wife,’’ Fredrik’s duet with Desiree.)
Not that marriage necessarily imposes much of an impediment in this crowd of upper-crusters as they prepare for the scheming and counter-scheming heralded by the Act One closer, “A Weekend in the Country.’’ Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (an amusingly stentorian Mike McGowan) is carrying on an affair with Desiree right under the nose of his wife, Countess Charlotte. The countess is played by the inimitable Lauren Molina, deploying her comic skills to the max but also opening herself up to the anguish of “Every Day a Little Death,’’ the Countess’s duet with Anne about the humiliations of married life.
Molina’s portrayal of Cunégonde in Mary Zimmerman’s “Candide’’ at the Huntington was one of the theater highlights of 2011. McCaela Donovan, one of the most gifted musical performers in Boston, was wasted in that production, but not here. Donovan brings a just-right air of impudence and carefree sexuality to her portrayal of Petra, a maid, including a passionate rendition of “The Miller’s Son,’’ a celebration of the seize-the-day ethos Petra lives by.
Another Boston stalwart, Bobbie Steinbach, is given a chance to shine in “Night Music,’’ and she takes it. As the imperious Madame Armfeldt, a former courtesan and Desiree’s mother, Steinbach is a delight, from start (when she tells a male servant that it’s “Time for my nap’’ in a voice dripping with insinuation) to finish.
Layers of burnished sound emanate from the fine orchestra, and there’s not a weak link in the cast. It includes Pablo Torres as Henrik Egerman, son of Fredrik, studying for the ministry while secretly harboring a love for Anne, his father’s wife; and Lauren Weintraub as Fredrika, Desiree’s daughter. Deft work is also turned in by the design team, including Robert Morgan, who devised the elegant costumes, and Derek McLane, whose sets smoothly facilitate transitions from scene to scene.
But the driving force of “A Little Night Music,’’ still and I suspect always, are the intricately expressive words and music of that old showoff, Stephen Sondheim.
A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC
Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Hugh Wheeler. Directed by Peter DuBois. Presented by Huntington Theatre Company at BU Theatre, Boston, through Oct. 11. 617-266-0800, www.huntingtontheatre.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.