old woman in black sitting in wheel chair

An imperious woman, alone: Christine Hunter as Madame Armfeldt, in Burning Coal Theatre’s “A Little Night Music.”
Photo credit: Brian Lord

The romantic conceit dates back before Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 classic, Smiles of a Summer Night, and well before Shakespeare: when humans have gotten themselves stuck in the worst partnerships possible (or, even worse, in abject celibacy), the magic of a midsummer’s night can sort everything out, bring the right pairs together in spite of themselves and restore harmonic community, dyad by dyad.

A pastoral pipe dream? Perhaps. Still, one thing’s for sure: the major relationships in A Little Night Music, the Tony award-winning 1973 musical by Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim, are all in need of a reset, and that specifically includes most of the characters’ relationships with their own sexuality. In this stage adaptation of Bergman’s film, it’s midsummer, circa 1900, and there is considerable disarray, putting it mildly, among the various kinships, partnerings and hook-ups in the upper class of Swedish society.

After the death of his first wife and the departure of Henrik, his bright but melancholic 20-year-old son, to seminary, Fredrik Egerman, a successful middle-aged lawyer, has wed someone less than half his age: his naïve, self-centered, adolescent 18-year-old niece, Anne. “Do you remember when I was a little girl and you came to my father’s house for dinner and told me fairy tales,” the girlchild asks as she deliberates over jewelry for a night at the theater. “Then you were ‘Uncle Fredrik’ and now you’re my husband. Isn’t that amusing?”

That potentially unsavory question isn’t fully answered, even after we learn that, eleven months after their betrothal, she hasn’t yet consented to have sex with him – ostensibly, over anxiety about losing her virginity – and that Fredrik hasn’t forced the issue. Though Anne (a chilly and occasionally brittle Alli Mae Carnes) guiltily vows to shortly change all that in the song, “Soon,” it also contains a less than encouraging progress report: “Even now, When you’re close and we touch, And you’re kissing my brow, I don’t mind it too much.” Before that, after he half-heartedly contemplates ravishing her by charm or by muscle, Fredrik (given a dashing and empathetic streak by actor Derek Robinson) opts for a nap instead, concluding “I still want and/or love you,” in the questionable wordplay of the song, “Now.”

Even the main problem for the shrill and conspicuously underwritten Henrik (Ian Finley) seems to be that he needs to get laid. It’s almost like the musical was written by two guys or something.

Meanwhile, for the Armfeldt family, sex has segued from an occupation to a preoccupation. The imperious Madame Armfeldt (notable Christine Hunter), is a jaded study in social, if not moral, rectitude, who has built a small real estate empire out of servicing a number of 19th-century European nobles as a courtesan – an upper-crust sex worker – back in the day. She’s ruthlessly pragmatic in critiquing the decline of professional-grade liaisons, when she instructs her granddaughter, Fredrika: “Too many people muddle sex with mere desire, and when emotion intervenes, The nets descend. It should on no account perplex, or worse, inspire. It’s but a pleasurable means to a measurable end.”

The madame’s own measurable end involves ruling her sumptuous country estate from a wheelchair, quite alone, save for the help and her granddaughter, distanced from all behind an autocratic façade: a vision of heaven or hell, take your pick.

Just now, she’s reluctantly opened her overstaffed chateau for the weekend to let her daughter, the fading, eternally touring actor Desiree (Kelley Keats), try to sort out her conflicting relationships. Fredrik, her one-time lover, is back in play, having grown tired of waiting for Anne to put out. (The scene where he begs Desiree to take him back into her bed – immediately after singing the droll duet “You Must Meet My Wife” – is a cautionary study in slam segues and sad scripting, which the current show didn’t solve the night we saw it.)

Unfortunately, they’ve been found out by her hot-headed current amour, the trigger-happy dragoon Count Carl-Magnus (crisply rendered by Byron Jennings). That tangle will inevitably also include the count’s wife, the laceratingly self- and other-loathing Charlotte (given a gratifyingly sharp reading by Sarah Winter). After conflicting interests and jealousies come to a head among the sick burns at a fabulously awkward dinner party, midsummer magic will truly be needed for any alliances to survive.

Some of that magic is made visible throughout, in dancemaker Genevieve “Gigi” Juras‘ deft choreography that moves 14 bodies gracefully through the decidedly intimate space of the Murphey School theater. We see and hear it in designer Xiang Li‘s celestial globes that hover in midair, veteran designer Matthew Adelson‘s atmospheric lighting and Christian Stahr‘s deft musical direction, leading vocalists with varying abilities and a soulful four-piece ensemble through Sondheim’s challenging rounds and fugues.

Ultimately, though, that enchantment has to pivot on a more fundamental magic of the theater: the belief that allows us to invest in its characters and world in the first place. Unfortunately, that was in short supply in some places on the night we saw A Little Night Music.

When Henrik and Anne’s characters weren’t fully fleshed out, we didn’t get to see the truth of his passion for Anne, what’s ever truly lovable about him to her, and we didn’t get to witness an emotionally chilly character’s evolving capacity for warmth. When their attraction remained that hypothetical, we wound up not believing or caring very much when they eloped. It wasn’t entirely clear if the other characters did either. That’s a problem, for an event that supposedly sets in motion a liberating cascade of candor and emotional honesty that frees nearly everyone here.

In that absence, the characters we came closest to caring about and sympathizing with were those who realized their mistakes, at the midsummer of their lives, and acknowledged and forsook – that, or deliberately embraced and doubled down on – the illusions they’d harbored about relationships and love.

In Sondheim’s beguiling if uneven score, memories delighted and tempted the older principals into wondering if any passions could be reclaimed, redeemed from the irretrievable past. Between the catalog of regrets in “Every Day a Little Death” and the final rendition of “Send in The Clowns” – the gleeful one, that always goes unremembered – mistakes were duly honored. Ultimately, though, the wisest words sung may have been the solemn ones of the no-nonsense servant, Petra (Margaret Ellen Christensen), whose clear-eyed census of possibilities, “The Miller’s Son,” counseled that it’s best to keep the eyes of the heart wide open, and not make them in the first place.

A Little Night Music continues its run at Burning Coal Theatre in Raleigh through April 21. For more information, see our calendar or visit their site here.