Director Mark Lamos and choreographer Val Caniparoli have breathed passion into Stephen Sondheim’s romantic waltz “A Little Night Music” at American Conservatory Theater. The opening tableaux boldly announces that this is no pallid, stately production of a classic and what follows is a frisky romp through a week of seemingly endless Swedish summer nights.
It is a lush, richly visual and highly fluid physical production. Set designer Riccardo Hernandez delights with beautifully decorated articulating screens and drapes. Beds and vanities waltz into place as animated chandeliers, courtesy lighting designer Robert Wierzel, define the playing areas. Gorgeous costumes by Candice Donnelly transition from stately to sexy as characters peel back physical and emotional layers in pursuit of romantic fulfillment.
Populating this stylish, turn-of-the-20th century world are an actress, her former lover, his son, her current lover, their wives, her mother, her daughter, servants and a quintet of sly observers who comment on the optimism, rapture and absurdity of romantic entanglements past, present and to come that play out in three-quarter time.
The book by Hugh Wheeler is one of the best in musical theater and the company at the Geary mines it well for both the humor and pathos abundant in amorous exploits. Karen Ziemba is the funniest, most enchantingly self-deprecating Desirée imaginable. The near bullet-proof role of Charlotte retains all of its arch bite, but reveals a deep and aching yearning in Emily Skinner’s deft playing. Anne, too often presented as a blithering idiot, is girlish enough thanks to a light touch by Laurie Veldheer, but not without heart or the stirring of compassion and deeper feelings.
Unfortunately their opposites do not meet them halfway. As Fredrik, the lawyer pulled from the allure of Anne to the fulfillment of Desirée, Patrick Cassidy brings stately good looks and an earnest demeanor to the role, but seems ill equipped for its vocal requirements. The lack of vocal weight also plagues Paolo Montalban, seemingly miscast as Carl-Magnus, husband to Charlotte, and Justin Scott Brown, otherwise charming as Henrik, the seminarian secretly in love with his young stepmother.
Bracketing the action, Dana Ivey is regally inevitable as Madame Armfeldt and Brigid O’Brien is indeed “positively canny” but refreshing as adolescent Fredrika.
The playful quintet (Christine Capsuto, Brandon Dahlquist, Annemaria Rajala, Andres Ramirez and Caitlan Taylor) is superb and Wayne Barker’s music direction lilting. Still, the production begins to feel like “a little light music” until Marissa McGowan rolls in as Petra, the maid (entwined with Michael McIntyre’s feisty butler Frid) and knocks it out of the house with a ravishing, passionate, full-throttle take on “The Miller’s Son.”
A Little Night Music
Where: American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F.
When: Tuesdays-Sundays; closes June 21
Tickets: $20 to $140
Contact: (415) 749-2228, www.act-sf.org