A Little Night Music, Signature Theatre

Recently, a friend remarked off-handedly that there were two types of people: the ones who say that Sweeney Todd is their favorite Sondheim, and the ones who say Into the Woods.  I am the secret third kind; my favorite Sondheim musical is A Little Night Music. We are a strange crowd, with our proclivity for variations of 3/4 time signatures and allegiances to love stories that take a few more melancholy twists and turns along the way than a kinder writer (be it Sondheim or Bergman in the original film, Smiles of a Summer Night) might have forced his characters to undergo.

Eric Schaffer has rightfully earned a reputation for directing Sondheim's works, and I was delighted to see him tackle Night Music, especially with this cast.  Bobby Smith is in excellent form as the sophisticated Frederik Egerman: urbane, charming, and utterly capable of creating his own enormous muddles that he can barely see his way through, much less solve.  Sam Ludwig seethes, constantly on the verge of either exploding or decaying into despair as Frederik's son Henrik, and there's a distinct musical theatre frisson in the air when Maria Rizzo finally steps into center stage as the maid Petra, to deliver a thrilling "The Miller's Son."  The ensemble truly is excellent, from Florence Lacey's droll turn as Madame Armfeldt to the sublime voices of the Liebesleider quartet (Susan Derry, Maria Egler, Benjamin Lurye, Quynh-My Luu, and Kevin McAllister).

But there are two true standouts in the ensemble, and DC theatregoers will not be in the least surprised to learn that these are Tracy Lynn Olivera as Charlotte and Holly Twyford as Desirée Armfeldt.  Olivera possesses the skill to make us laugh at Charlotte's wry wit even as we realize that the character's barbs and rejoinders come from a wholly truthful place in a deeply pained soul.  She's utterly heartbreaking and absolutely #goals all in one person, and it's a staggeringly good performance.

Twyford is exactly the right actor to take on Desirée, a part that has never needed an extraordinary singer, but rather an actress who can devastate the audience with a combination of panache and vulnerability.  "Send in the Clowns" is the kind of song that grows exponentially when reunited with its original context, and Twyford is more than capable of bringing her wealth of skills to the table.  When tears fill her eyes in the final verse, the audience were pulled into the character's resigned heartbreak right alongside her, and the stifled sobs I heard around me are a testament to it.  It's exactly the right combination of actor, material, and place, and DC audiences are richer for it.

There's a kind of grace to A Little Night Music that goes beyond the score requiring actors who can waltz. It tells us that we can make enormous mistakes and still deserve a second chance, or maybe even a third or fourth, to make things right and find happiness.  We can lament the modern age and all its foibles and failings, but we can still smile down on the young, the fools, and the old just the same.  Schaeffer has created a lovely Night Music at Signature, and the biggest mistake would be denying yourself a chance to see it.


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