"A Little Night Music" is arguably one of Stephen Sondheim's most undervalued musicals.
It's not playful, like "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," or arch, like "Company," or deliciously bloody, like "Sweeney Todd."
Most people who know Frank Sinatra's "Send in the Clowns" probably don't know that "A Little Night Music" is the show it was written for.
If you are among them, please: Let Four Seasons Theatre's production, running in the Playhouse through Aug. 19, be an introduction to this glorious show.
With a cast of excellent singers, an impressive 26-piece orchestra and a story of self-deception and desire, this performance is truly (as the lyrics promise) enchanting.
"A Little Night Music," written in 1973 by Sondheim (music/lyrics) and Hugh Wheeler (book), was inspired by a 1955 Ingmar Bergman film, "Smiles of a Summer Night."
Over the course of an evening in the country, the night "smiles" for Fredrik (Rick Henslin), a middle-aged lawyer who has tried to recapture his youth by marrying 18-year-old, still-virginal Anne (Anna Slate).
The night smiles, too, for Fredrik's son, the nervous and repressed Henrik (Joshua David Atkins), and for Fredrik's former lover, Desiree Armfeldt (Karen Moeller), with whom Fredrik rekindles a tentative romance.
Henslin and Moeller are well-matched, emotionally and vocally. As romantic entanglements tangle further, it's possible to see vulnerability shift from insecure Fredrik to self-assured Desiree, who seems genuinely shocked at his rejection.
Slate, a fine soprano with several University Opera credits to her name, captures Anne's flightiness and frantic energy. Anne is so caught up in a performance of herself, she buries her own desire.
Lori Poulson's Mme. Armfeldt is an imperious presence, despite her wheelchair, and Lauren Bobeck, as Desiree's young daughter, seems an old soul, innocent and wise.
There are a few missteps in casting. Atkins struggles with Henrik's higher notes as well as his inner torment. Michael Brunner doesn't muster enough swagger to make a believable Count Carl-Magnus, Desiree's chauvinistic lover.
But Megan Cullen is a lively, lusty Petra, despite a lyric fumble in "The Miller's Son" and an unfortunate microphone glitch. (She doesn't need it.)
Rachel Eve Holmes, playing the bitter wife of the philandering count, is a newcomer to the Madison stage. An operatic soprano, Holmes is a revelation — expressive and subtle, with a stunning instrument she handles ably in the lower part of her range.
The set, designed by Charles J. Trieloff II, is little more than a bed, a few benches, fencing and a rug. This works marvelously well to evoke both a house in the city and a manicured lawn on Madame Armfeldt's (Lori Poulson) country estate.
Tony Trout directs the ensemble, anchored by a quintet of fine singers. He paces the story well, despite a nearly three-hour run time.
Movement presents a larger challenge; it's sometimes stiff, or melodramatic. But there are lovely moments, like a shadow couple dancing through Mme. Armfeldt's "Liaisons," and subtle turning, like the movement of a clock, as the quintet sings of coming twilight in "Night Waltz." (Maureen Janson choreographed the actual waltzes.)
The heady beauty of "Little Night Music" feels right in the Playhouse, with its intimate thrust stage. The score is one of Sondheim's best.
Led by Scott Foss, the cast tumbles adeptly through "A Weekend in the Country." Two duets are highlights: "Every Day a Little Death" with Slate and Holmes, and the highly amusing "It Would Have Been Wonderful," with Henslin and Brunner.
"A Little Night Music" may not have fairy tale characters, angry gun-wielding Americans or a famous neo-impressionist painter.
But with this beautiful chamber work, Sondheim and Four Seasons show that subtlety can be equally captivating.