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Is Hans Christian Andersen ever risqué?

"A Little Night Music" 

Is Hans Christian Andersen ever risqué?

Pittsford Musicals has discovered sex. And in the nicest way possible, with a production of "A Little Night Music," the Stephen Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical that details the amorous entanglements of a group of turn-of-the-20th-century Swedes. If this seems like a major change from this group's generally family-friendly fare like "The Sound of Music," "Annie," and "Oliver!" I am all for it. This sophisticated, elegant, and yes, sexy show is not done all that often, and it is good to see it again.

The action — based on Ingmar Bergman's film "Smiles of a Summer Night" — centers, more or less, around Desirée Armfeldt (Sharon Bayer), a glamorous and celebrated actress. Her current lover is a randy, autocratic Count (Steve Cortese), but she decides to try to rekindle an old flame — a lawyer named Fredrik Egerman (Dan Miga). His wife Anne (Emily Putnam) is a teenager, who remains a virgin after several months of marriage. Also in the mix are the Count's wife Charlotte (Mary Ann Rutkowski), Egerman's son Henrik (Colin Pazik), and the Egermans' lusty servant (Linda Dirksen Gressell).

They all gather at the home of Desirée's mother (Susan Milner) — the home is an "extravagant chateau" she wisely got as a gift from a royal lover — for a weekend of adulterous, mostly (but not entirely) frustrated romance. But all eventually ends happily. In addition to all these interlinked characters, there is a quintet of singers (Jeff Wilson, Myriah Marsh, Kristin Mellema, Tom Racciula, Allyn Van Dusen) who drift in and out of the action, representing the characters' past selves and current erotic longings.

It's complicated, but it's not confusing: "A Little Night Music" has one of the best-written musical scripts ever. Few shows dovetail dialogue and score so skilfully and inevitably. Wheeler's book adds a few too many sub-Wilde epigrams to Bergman's elegant complications, but the characterizations are pungent and it is faultlessly constructed.

As for Sondheim's celebrated score, there is a reason it is so celebrated. "A Little Night Music" has some of the trappings of operetta — the waltzes, the fancy costumes, the European setting. But not many operettas can boast such spiffy lyrics — witty, faultlessly rhyming, and full of quotable lines (including the one that gives this review its title). And few musicals offer such rich, gently melancholy music, closer to Schubert or Ravel than Rodgers or Berlin. If that's not enough, the show also contains Sondheim's greatest hit, "Send in the Clowns," a moving song which becomes even more moving heard in its dramatic context.

This is a very special show, then, and requires a sophisticated presentation that this Pittsford Musicals presentation doesn't quite attain. Director Jerry Argetsinger has no trouble moving people around a stage effectively (he has directed seven Hill Cumorah Pageants, among many other shows), but "A Little Night Music" is written to be presented seamlessly, almost cinematically, and the technical aspects of the Panera Theater don't seem to work in its favor.

David Fisher's basic idea for the set — nine triangular towers that turn and shift to create different scenes, including a chateau, a theater, and a birch wood, with furniture pieces placed in front of them as needed, is workable, but without the mechanics to do the setting shifts quickly there are still long waits between some scenes. Nor did the lighting seem equal to the task of delineating so many different playing areas onstage. Gail Argetsinger's costumes, the dresses in particular, are individually lovely and detailed, most of them in varying shades of brown.

Wheeler's dialogue calls for underplaying and perfect timing, and occasionally receives the subtlety it needs. There are a few standouts in the cast. I had no problem imagining Sharon Bayer as a famous actress. Her costumes make her look matronly instead of glamorous, but she exudes confidence onstage, and she has a crystal-clear singing voice; from the musical and acting standpoint, her rendition of "Send in the Clowns" (and the scene containing it, when Fredrick decides to leave her) is the high point of the show.

Linda Dirksen Gressell is a strong presence as the maidservant and gets another of Sondheim's standout songs, "The Miller's Son," late in Act 2, and knocks it out of the park (or in this case, the woods). Mary Ann Rutkowski seems too young to play Countess Charlotte effectively, but when she starts singing "Every Day a Little Death," a duet with Putnam, she not only hits every note it offers, musically and emotionally, but seems to kick the entire show into a whole new, emotionally complex realm. I guess we should thank Sondheim for that, but Rutkowski and Putnam are equals to the composer-lyricist's challenge.

In fact, the entire cast handles Sondheim's difficult music and words proficiently. They also deal surprisingly well with having the conductor and orchestra behind the set (the theater has no orchestra pit). But while there was nothing approaching a musical train wreck, this is not the way to allow actors to create a very nuanced or theatrical experience.

While this presentation of "A Little Night Music" is dramatically uneven, its vocal and musical pleasures are many, and it offers a chance to see an ever-charming and touching show.

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