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Small Wonder

Center Stage Achieves Sondheim's Grandness With Its Intimate Approach

I LET A SONG GO OUT OF MY HEART: Julia Osborne (left) and Kate Baldwin do Sondheim.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 4/2/2008

A Little Night Music

By Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler

At Center Stage through April 13

Early on in A Little Night Music you learn that the 18-year-old Anne Egerman has yet to lose her virginity even though she's been married to the much older Fredrik for 11 months. You also learn that Henrik Egerman, the young Lutheran seminarian, is wrestling with a carnal desire for his new stepmother, who is a year younger than he is. Henrik tries to find solace in Martin Luther's writings, but only finds release with Petra, the family's bawdy maid.

If this romantic quadrangle appears a bit perverse for an American musical comedy, bear in mind that it was adapted from an Ingmar Bergman movie by Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the music and lyrics, and by Hugh Wheeler, who wrote the book. Sondheim has built his career upon the notion that the best comedies have the deepest bite, and here the love of a middle-aged lawyer for his teenaged bride and of a gloomy seminarian for his girlish stepmother are as painful as they are funny.

In Center Stage's delightful new production of Night Music, Stephen Bogardus plays Fredrik as a trim man with graying, receding hair. He sits on the edge of his still-unstained marriage bed in his underwear, analyzing his predicament like the lawyer he is. "Now, there are two possibilities: a) I could ravish her; b) I could nap," he sings in an incongruously jaunty tenor. "Say it's the ravishment, then we see the option which follows, of course: a) the deployment of charm, or b) the adoption of physical force."

Meanwhile, Anne (Julia Osborne) is brushing her strawberry-blond hair at her vanity. Osborne plays her as a wide-eyed doll of a girl, and she babbles incessantly about trivia while nursing her own interior monologue. ""Soon, I promise," she sings as if trying to will herself past her reluctance. "Soon I won't shy away, dear old . . . ," and by twisting the word "old," Osborne suggests the real source of Anne's hesitation.

In another room, Henrik (Josh Young) practices the cello and wonders why he must always stifle his desires. "Later?" he sings. "How can I wait around for later? I'll be 90 on my death bed, the late, or rather later, Henrik Egerman! Doesn't anything begin?"

These three songs--as intricate in melody as they are in wordplay--are sung one after the other as solo numbers, revealing the isolation of each character trapped inside his or her frustrated desires. These three people may be linked in the wrong ways, but they are linked nonetheless, and Sondheim eventually braids the three songs into a trio number full of new, rich harmonies. It will not be the last time in the show that the composer wrings poignancy and art out of ridiculous farce.

As Center Stage proved with its terrific 2004 production of Sweeney Todd, Sondheim works best on an intimate scale. For Night Music, director Mark Lamos has employed an abridged band--a chamber octet led by keyboardist Wayne Barker--and has encouraged his singers to be more conversational in their delivery.

This understated approach allows the characters' ambivalence and the music to come through more clearly than they ever could in a big house with a larger band and brassier arrangements. And Lamos finds just the right tempo for the material--not so fast that the sting gets glossed over and not so slow that the comedy falters. Taking advantage of the composer's musical bridges, the director uses his dancing, singing five-person chorus to push the momentum ever forward, even as the lead performers are exiting and entering.

Lamos gets sturdy, competent work from his actors, but he has his best luck with his actresses. Osborne is so beguiling as the flirtatious virgin that you understand why Fredrik and Henrik are so dizzy about her. Sarah Uriarte Berry shines just as brightly, though her maid is the mirror opposite of Osborne's Anne; the bluntly irreverent Petra emphatically favors action over talk. But the linchpin of this marvelous production is Barbara Walsh's Desiree Armfeldt, a once famous actress reduced to touring the provinces.

Desiree hasn't seen her ex-lover Fredrik in 14 years, but when the thwarted husband shows up backstage after a show, the actress gladly welcomes him into her bed. Walsh radiates the sassy independence of a woman proud to rattle off a list of her amorous conquests, but she never becomes an impersonal bedroom warrior; Walsh is capable of tender attachment as well.

When Desiree's current lover--the dimwitted but studly soldier Carl-Magnus (Maxwell Caulfield)--shows up unexpectedly, she straightens her disheveled, low-cut dress, lifts up her large bundle of brown hair, calms her face, and glibly lies to protect Fredrik. The script needn't announce Desiree's wish to perhaps settle down with the lawyer; Walsh has already made it clear.

This isn't a perfect production. The celebrity casting of Polly Bergen (who co-starred with Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum in the 1962 Cape Fear) as Desiree's cynical, wheelchair-bound mother backfires badly as Bergen stumbles over lines and notes. Riccardo Hernandez's set is another of Center Stage's heavy-handed metaphorical stage designs; yet again giant, empty picture frames are there to hit us over the head with the idea of theater as artifice. But these are minor quibbles.

As in Bergman's only comedy, 1955's Smiles of a Summer Night, these characters spend the first act in Stockholm and the second act at Desiree's mother's country estate. There Desiree lures Fredrik to her bedroom once more, hoping to cement a long-term relationship. When he declares that he's not ready to give up on his unconsummated marriage quite yet, she can't help but feel foolish--a once imperious, now aging woman throwing herself at a married man.

This sets up the song "Send in the Clowns," and no matter how sick you are of this overdone number, you'll be glad to hear it in this context. Walsh has a strong though not spectacular voice, but as she stands in Desiree's bedroom, watching Fredrik walk out the door, she brings so much personality to bear on the song--the longing for a lost love, the bruised dignity of an aging star, the exasperating knowledge that he belongs with her--that the song reveals its ingenuity and grandeur as if it were brand new. H

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