It’s hard to believe it’s been almost 40 years since “A Little Night Music” premiered on Broadway. But, sure enough, the show opened in late February, 1973, and Stephen Sondheim had his third hit in as many years, following “Company” and “Follies.”
It is a particularly difficult show for theater groups to stage — the score is extremely tricky, with complex meters, pitch changes, and very high notes in both the male and female roles. The Princeton Summer Theater is opening its 20th season with the work which, you may remember, is based on “Smiles of a Summer Night.” An Ingmar Bergman film.
And it is an almost unqualified success, a stunning tribute to an extraordinary company, a first-class technical team, and a superb director.
The Bergman movie, like the play, is set in Sweden, roughly around 1900, and it gets its title from a scene where the grandmother tells her young granddaughter that there are three smiles for a summer night: one, a smile for the young; two, a smile for fools, and three, a smile for the old. The grandmother is a cynical old biddie, played in the Broadway original (and later in the London production) by Hermione Gingold. Other notables in the role have been Margaret Hamilton of Wicked Witch of the West fame, Angela Lansbury, and Elaine Stritch in more recent times.
As you can tell from the casting, the role is an essential part of any production. Here it is played by Carolyn Vasko, a fine actress, but too young (she will be a senior at the university next year) and not yet cynical enough to find all the nastiness needed to complete the character.
However, that is the only quibble of the evening. Sarah Anne Sillers, as Desiree, the actress with a roving eye and a yearning heart, is outstanding. Her “Send in the Clowns” in Act Two will bring tears to your eyes. Likewise Maeve Brady, as the Countess Charlotte. She is indeed young, having finished her freshman year (and therefore known as “a rising sophomore.”) Both ladies can act with flashes of brilliance and can sing with the best.
The men have less exotic roles, but Evan Thompson, as Fredrik and Andrew Massey as Count Carl-Magnus are superb. The former keeps his delicious sense of proper sense of things no matter how ruffled and the latter clearly is still searching for the meaning for what he is doing (in perfect comic tradition).
Meanwhile the Greek-Chorus of five business/social creatures (Sam Eggers, Abigail Sparrow, Emily Verla, Brian Hart, and Jessica Anne Cox) work in and out of multiple scenes, with ease, often moving bits of furniture and props as they do so. They all sing and dance with great effect as well. Musical Director Kevin Laskey is some sort of resident genius (he has just graduated from the university with many awards in several disciplines). His work and that of stage director Adam Immerwahr shows up in every scene.
You may remember that there was a 1977 film which starred Elizabeth Taylor (as Desiree.) In typical Hollywood style, it had some appalling cuts — several of the tunes were delegated to background music. For the most part the critics contented themselves to discussing Ms. Taylor’s weight changes from scene to scene. Thus, a most difficult work done nicely by a strong, confident troupe of creative young artists. Full of courage and a sophisticated start to what promises to be a fine summer.
A Little Night Music, Thursday, June 28, through Sunday, July 1, at Hamilton Murray Theater on the Princeton University campus. 609-258-7062 or www.princetonsummertheater.com.