By Richard Ades
To succeed, a musical production needs basic ingredients such as strong singing, a good band, pretty scenery, etc. If a show has all of these things, it’s probably worth seeing.
But it can be so much more if the director has a feel for the material’s subtleties (assuming there are any) and knows how to communicate them to the cast and crew. Then the musical becomes a transcendent experience.
At Short North Stage, I’ve seen two such productions, both written by Stephen Sondheim: 2013’s Sunday in the Park With George and, now, A Little Night Music. In the current show, a bittersweet reverie on love and regret, director Michael Licata and his cast bring out every knowing chuckle and every tender, aching moment.
Adapted by Hugh Wheeler from the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night, the 1973 Tony winner centers on two Swedish households at the turn of the last century.
In one, middle-aged lawyer Fredrik Egerman (Mark A. Harmon) lives with young wife Anne (Jennifer Barnaba) and his son from a previous marriage, seminary student Henrik (JJ Parkey). In the other, Madame Armfeldt (Linda Dorff) cares for granddaughter Fredrika (Maria Delanno) while the girl’s mother, actress Desiree (Marya Spring), is off touring with her latest play.
From the start, it’s apparent that the Egerman household is emotionally unstable. Fredrik loves his girlish wife but is frustrated by her reluctance to take part in marital relations. When Desiree’s touring show arrives in town, he can’t resist going to see the woman with whom he had an affair some 14 years earlier.
This leads to a night of passion that arouses the suspicions of Desiree’s current lover, the pinheaded Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Nick Lingnofski). Being a first-class male chauvinist, he then complains about his mistress’s indiscretion to his long-suffering wife, Charlotte (Kate Lingnofski).
All the desires, suspicions and resentments that were fomented in Act 1 come to a delicious head in Act 2, when everyone converges at Madame Armfeldt’s estate for a country outing.
It’s hard to find fault with the large cast, except to note that Barnaba’s Anne sometimes fades into the woodwork and that her pretty soprano voice was occasionally overwhelmed by the band on opening night. Really, though, there are no weak links.
Spring exudes worldly confidence as Desiree, which makes her vulnerable rendition of the show’s most memorable tune, Send in the Clowns, all the more devastating. As former lover Fredrik, Harmon offers a deftly sketched portrait of a decent man tottering on a tightrope between obligation and desire.
Parkey, a familiar visitor on the Short North stage, gives one of his best performances yet as Henrik, a young man pulled in opposite directions by his religious ideals and his unspoken love for his 18-year-old stepmother. Another career-topping performance is given by Dorff as Madame Armfeldt, whether she’s tackling Sondheim’s tricky melodies or waxing philosophical about roads not taken.
Several hearty laughs are earned by Nick Lingnofski as the preening, adulterous count, while Kate Lingnofski communicates all of the conflicting emotions felt by his wronged but loving wife, Charlotte. In another important supporting role, Eli Brickey gives a saucy but warmhearted portrayal as Petra, Anne’s maid and confidante, and delivers a rousing rendition of The Miller’s Son, a Celtic-flavored statement of female self-sufficiency.
Meanwhile, young Maria Delanno shows remarkable poise as the wise-beyond-her-years Fredrika—to the extent that she didn’t even flinch when a piano bench collapsed under her on opening night.
Adding to the production’s texture are the varied voices who serve as a sort of musical Greek chorus, as well as the backstage musicians who perform under Lloyd Butler’s direction. Interestingly, nearly all of the songs are written in waltz time, which makes it fitting that the most prominent dance numbers (choreographed by Dionysia Williams) are actual waltzes.
Like the troupe’s 2013 staging of Sunday in the Park With George, the current show is a visual treat thanks to Ray Zupp’s gauze-strewn scenery, Adam Zeek’s ethereal lighting and a colorful array of costumes supervised by Stephanie Keller. But perhaps the most important of the backstage talents is sound designer Michael Mason, who succeeds in making nearly every syllable come through clearly—not an easy feat in the Garden Theater’s cavernous main auditorium.
With A Little Night Music, Short North Stage proves once again that it understands Sondheim. The show is tender, wise, witty and—for devoted fans of the composer/lyricist—completely unmissable.
Short North Stage will present A Little Night Music through Nov. 1 at the Garden Theater, 1187 N. High St., Columbus. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 3 hours (including intermission). Tickets are $25-$40. 614-725-4042 or shortnorthstage.org.