- The Washington Times - Monday, March 24, 2008

At the beginning of Stephen Sondheim’s ravishing waltz-time musical “A Little Night Music,” the elderly courtesan Madame Armfeldt (Polly Bergen) tells her granddaughter Fredrika (Mattie Hawkinson) that the summer night smiles three times at what fools these mortals be.

“The first smile smiles at the young, who know nothing. The second at the fools who know too little. And the third at the old, who know too much,” she says.

More than three smiles, however, await audiences at Center Stage’s sexy and sophisticated “Night Music,” directed with painterly refinement by Mark Lamos in a museum-worthy staging that makes subtle references to Degas’ ballerinas, Picasso’s harlequin period and erotic art by Gustav Klimt and Aubrey Beardsley.

This grown-up operetta — a randy, Strindbergian variation on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” set in turn-of-the-century Scandinavia and based on Ingmar Bergman’s classic film “Smiles of a Summer Night”— depicts a well-to-do group of characters in a roundelay of love and regret.

The antics revolve around Desiree Armfeldt (Barbara Walsh), a mature actress whose femme-fatale play-acting seeps into her private life. Desiree’s lover, the pompous dragoon Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Maxwell Caulfield), and his vitriolic, heartbroken wife Charlotte (Kate Baldwin), crash the house party where she’s rekindling an old flame with Fredrik Egerman (Stephen Bogardus). Fredrik has tried to stave off aging through a frivolous marriage to 18-year-old Anne (Julia Osborne), with whom his young son Henrik (Josh Young) is hopelessly in love. By the end of this “Weekend in the Country,” almost no one is with his or her original partner — but for everyone, a new life finally has begun.

The couplings and uncouplings are depicted in fragmentary style, set to Mr. Sondheim’s score, lush and complex variations on triple-time. A Greek chorus (the excellent Whit Baldwin, Jacque Carnahan, Amy Justman, Alison Mahoney and Joe Paparella) made up of tightly corseted women and men in evening dress (and undress) makes dry musical commentary and even romps in the Swedish hay a few times.

“Night Music” looks like a moving art gallery, but beyond the visual splendor, the cast creates lasting portraits, beginning with Miss Walsh, who underplays Desiree — and consequently, her “Send in the Clowns” is one of supple subtlety. Mr. Bogardus is both genteelly foolish and romantic as Fredrik, a contrast to Mr. Caufield’s comic bluster as the Count.

The women, however, prevail, from Miss Baldwin’s luminous turn as Charlotte (her “Every Day a Little Death” is a delicate marvel) and Sarah Uriarte Berry as the lusty, pragmatic maid Petra, whose “The Miller’s Son” is a second-act stunner.

This production, featuring a set by Riccardo Hernandez and costumes by Candice Donnelly, is so handsome — both visually and vocally— that you don’t know whether to applaud it or bid on it. The gaslight-style lighting by Robert Wierzel makes the cast all glowing, immaculate skin in a musical about the trappings and teasings of the flesh.

What could be more apt?


WHAT:”A Little Night Music,” music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler

WHERE: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St., Baltimore

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays except 7 p.m. April 10; 10:30 April 9; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. March 30 and April 6. Through April 13.

TICKETS: $10 to $65

PHONE: 410/332-0033

WEB SITE: www.centerstage.org


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