by Brenda W. Clough
One of the gems of the musical theater was staged this season at the Signature Theatre in Washington DC. A Little Night Music isn’t Stephen Sondheim’s greatest musical; that spot is reserved for Follies. But it’s unquestionably the most accessible of his works, with its sweet waltzy score and romantic comedy plot.
This well-reviewed production puts full emphasis on the slapstick farce that lurks behind all romance. All the characters exist in a state of excruciating sexual or romantic frustration, and after a round of slamming bedroom doors, startling revelations, leaps in and out of bed, and convoluted betrayals in the gardens of a country house, everything is delightfully sorted out. Surely there is no comedy more cruel than romantic comedy? When the frustrated young seminary student has a performance failure during the futile attempt to shed his virginity, we’re rolling in the aisles; pain is funny when it’s not serious pain.
The other thing I noticed in this production is how tightly the entire thing is plotted. Everything ties neatly together and there is almost nothing extraneous. It’s tight and lean and almost compulsively hummable — something that Sondheim’s scores allegedly lack. We rode the elevator to the parking garage and the entire car full of theater goers is humming “The sun won’t set, it’s useless to frown or to fret/The hands on the clock turn but don’t sing a nocturne just yet.” Utterly delightful!