“A Little Night Music” retains its charm with a smaller cast and orchestra

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The cast on stage singing
A Little Night Music (Photo by Lianne Schoenwiesner)
A man and a woman sitting at a table with a silver tea pot and tea cups.
A Little Night Music (Photo by Lianne Schoenwiesner)

The American Theater Group (ATG), when it chooses musicals, usually goes in for hidden gems — shows that were under-appreciated in their time but had solid scores and books. One cannot easily classify Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s 1973 musical A Little Night Music, based on Ingmar Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night, as being under-appreciated, even though it’s not been seen on a New Jersey stage for years.

However, ATG has put its own stamp on the show (with the approval of the creators’ estates) by eliminating the quintet that served as a musical Greek chorus commenting on the action, letting the show’s ten actors take their place, and by reducing the orchestra to three pieces: piano, cello, and harp. The result is to focus more attention on the action of the play, even though the superb score can never be ignored.

The action takes place in Sweden during the early 1900s. Lawyer Frederik Egerman (Graham Rowat) has been married to his much-younger bride Anne (Lillie Langston) for 11 months but the marriage has yet to be consummated. His sober-sided son Henrik (Jack Dossett) is home on vacation from studying to become a minister. An evening at the theater leads to Frederik’s reunion with his former lover, glamorous actress Desiree Armfeldt (Kate Baldwin), who is nearing the end of an affair with the vain, hyper-masculine Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Benjamin H. Moore).

In an attempt to win Frederik back, Desiree gets her mother, the fabled courtesan Leonora Armfeldt (Ruth Gottschall) who is taking care of Desiree’s daughter Fredrika (Tara Rajan), to invite the Egerman family for a weekend visit. Carl-Magnus, getting wind of this from his wife Charlotte (Abby Middleton), decides they will crash the party.

The show, under the direction of Hunter Foster, retains its charms even in this scaled down version, and the audience was easily caught up in its romantic spell. The cast is mostly superb with fine singing voices, starting with Baldwin and Rowat, who in real life are husband and wife. Baldwin in particular does a moving rendition of the show’s best-known number, “Send In the Clowns.” Ruth Gottschall’s Madame Armfeldt delivers acerbic lines throughout, providing a tonic to the romantic misadventures of the show. She handles her musical memoir “Liasons” with comic skill. Moore and Middleton are a delight as sex-obsessed members of the nobility, and Rajan is delightful as an observant, intelligent, sensible girl on the brink of womanhood. Alyssa Wray as the Egerton’s maid Petra adds spice whenever she appears, especially in her ruefully practical take on “The Miller’s Son”. Dossett mines the comedy in Henrik’s spiritual/sensual conflicts. However, it seems that Langston has been encouraged to go overboard in Anne’s behaviors, her child bride seeming more childish than wifely, making it easy to dismiss her very real dilemmas.

The American Theater Group is to be commended not only for bringing back the delight and beauty that is A Little Night Music but also for managing to do it in a condensed version that will make it possible for more small theatres to stage this romantic, humorous classic. I recommend making the trip into a Swedish summer filled with A Little Night Music.

A Little Night Music is presented by the American Theater Group at the Hamilton Stage in Rahway through March 24, 2024. For more information, go to americantheatergroup.org.  To purchase tickets, go to the ATG website or call 732-499-8226.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.