By Jim Rutter
FOR THE INQUIRER
The Arden Theatre first staged Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music in 1995 at the Arts Bank on Broad and South Streets. Two decades on, they've upstaged the musical with a gorgeously designed, magnificently presented production that, as a capstone to the Arden's 25th season, revels in its success.
Hugh Wheeler's book (inspired by Ingmar Bergman's 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night) depicts the intermingled romantic follies of three couples: mid-40s lawyer Fredrik Egerman (Christopher Patrick Mullen) and his 18-year-old still-virgin bride, Anne (Patti-Lee Meringo), who teases her husband's seminary-student son, Henrik (Joe Hogan), even as he flirts with the maid, Petra (Alex Keiper), while his dad tries to rekindle a romance with actress Desiree (Grace Gonglewski), herself stoking the dying fires of an affair with Count Carl-Magnus (Ben Dibble), as his marriage to Countess Charlotte (Karen Peakes) falters.
That's a lot to keep straight across the cast of 15 mostly local actors, but director Terry Nolen's smooth staging perfectly integrates their layered storylines. Strong singing from Dibble, Hogan, Meringo, and Keiper excites in solos, duets, and trios, and in "Weekend in the Country," the rousing ensemble number that closes Act One.
But despite Eric Ebbenga's bubbly rendering of the waltz-driven score, Nolen's direction doesn't let us get away with merely enjoying the frivolity of this musical through song. He emphasizes the dark, near-cynical humor of the lyrics, accentuated particularly by Peakes' depressive Countess and Sally Mercer's nihilistic Madame Armfeldt, Desiree's mother. Their performances shine through scenes of clever banter and youthful anguish, while the adults give free rein to petty jealousy and tyrannical vanity, those bastard children of affection.
Regret and remorse rear in reminiscences sung by a quintet of lieder singers; whenever they appear, Thom Weaver's lighting shades them like ghosts as the rest of the cast stops still in profile, suggesting a turn away from true emotion, to which the conclusion's comeuppance offers a bittersweet reprieve. A series of receding sunsets enlivens costumer Rosemarie McKelvey's sumptuous feathered hats and ornamented dresses.
The production sails by like a dream, a thin gauze that blinds our eyes, first to consequence, later to regret, but which, in the splendor of this staging, lets in the promise of a summer smile that redeems us.
Through June 30 at the Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2d St. Tickets: $36 to $48. 215-922-1122, or ardentheatre.org.