Sondheim at Signature is musical magic

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Michael Toscano

Longtime Washington actress Holly Twyford makes her musical debut in Signature Theatre’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. She plays Desiree Armfeldt, whose love life and career are fading.
Photo by Christopher Mueller

The best theater creates a sort of air-tight chamber in which you are totally isolated from the world of reality. Indeed, your only “reality” for a time is the world conjured up before you, enveloping you with words, the music, in this case, and the physical aura of the actors.

Those elements combine with the skill and technical expertise of artists and craftspeople to release you from the mundane and let you soar on imagination. Everything else drops away.

That’s what is achieved at some point early in the second act of the transcendent production of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, now onstage at Signature Theatre through October 8. 

We go to see a show by Stephen Sondheim because we love — we need — his music and his lyrics. (Book here by Hugh Wheeler.)

We go to see a Sondheim show at Signature Theatre because we know it will be staged about as well as it can be staged. And we go to Signature Theatre to see a Sondheim show directed by Eric Schaeffer because we just have to, that’s all.

Here we are especially rewarded because Schaeffer has pared away the pretensions that can so easily be attached to this musical, apparently due to the rigors of the music, with its occasionally operatic singing demands.

He gets to the heart of what Sondheim and Wheeler created for us: exceedingly sublime music, to be sure (much of it in waltzes of various rhythms), and really funny farce. But the farce comes out of unusually layered characters, even as they often engage in sharp-tongued and clever repartee. So it’s all quite tricky.

Casting a spell

A Little Night Music is a Tony Award-winner with one of Sondheim’s most singular hit songs, the poignant “Send in the Clowns,” along with the popular-among-Broadway-fans thematic anthem “A Weekend in the Country” and “Liaisons.” 

Because this musical is “suggested by a film by Ingmar Bergman,” as the credits always officiously announce, the story of a disparate group of people remembering love, mourning love, looking for love and finding love takes place in 1900 Sweden.

It begins to cast the early stages of its spell as early as the second number of act one — the “Night Waltz,” with choreographer Karma Camp’s graceful pairings in dance moving to the frictionless orchestration. 

That the spell takes so long to achieve its full measure (the second act, remember?), its power slowly building, is a tribute to Schaeffer’s discipline and trust in his audience. It might be a bit disconcerting to see the characters so broadly played for laughs when the package they are presented in is so elegant.

But slowly, subtly, we see the valiant effort to accept the passage of time by a former femme fatale (Signature stalwart Florence Lacy) now at the point where she is planning her funeral with dark pleasure. We see the inner turmoil and intense sexual frustration of the young preacher-to-be (Sam Ludwig).

And we sympathize with the actress (Holly Twyford), whose fading career coincides with a sliding in the quality of her love life. Her former flame (Bobby Smith) is now trapped in an unconsummated marriage with an 18-year-old vivacious bubble-head.

It’s funny. They play it funny. But first they make the characters real, as do the supporting cast members with their roles — too numerous to mention here. 

Familiar faces

So this is a good place to address one of the central questions of this production, a question that can be summed up with two words and a question mark: Holly Twyford?

She is, quite simply, one of Washington’s best actors and has been for a long time. We fans love her ability to breathe life into roles, not infrequently in smallish, intimate plays. She can play mean; she can play sweet; she can play beguiling, and she can play a manipulative, amoral bitch.

But she has never before, as far as I know, sung a note in musical theater. So, you want to know, how does she do? Here’s your answer: well enough.

She will never be mistaken for Julie Andrews. In fact, when she sings she sounds an awful lot like Bette Davis singing. But because Twyford is such a talented actor, it sounds as if the character, a somewhat coarsened character after a few decades descending in second-rate tours, is supposed to sound like Bette Davis singing. And I’m fine with that. Moving on…

It’s also fun to see Will Gartshore back at Signature, transforming himself from leading-man type to character actor as a ridiculous dragoon who is the Twyford character’s current convenient lover. It’s one of several roles meant just for buffoonery, and he fully buffoons to great audience delight.

I mentioned that all the work building characters while also being funny in act one reaches its artistic climax conveniently enough in act two. Shortly after Gartshore and the vibrant Bobby Smith face off with “It Would Have Been Wonderful” as more duel than duet, something quite magical happens that kicks the enterprise up into another dimension, where it stays until the end.

It sounds ridiculous, I know. But the moment is a scenic transition that is the most beautiful, sublime transition I have ever seen. As we wait for a dinner scene to begin, a long table begins to fly in from above. The lights are dim, except for a striking, blue-tinged light (lighting by Colin K. Bills) seemingly emanating from within the unique panels (set by Paul Tate Depoo III) that grace the rear of the stage and suggest a variety of settings.

The table slowly descends, faux candles flickering as light piano notes tinkle in an oh-so-Sondheim-ish manner. (There needs to be an award category for this.) From then until the end, your local reviewer is totally caught up in that magnificent chamber of imagination, transported.

And by this point, the audience is so caught up in all of it, it only takes the very first hints of notes of “Send in the Clowns” for the tears to flow all around.

Twyford and Smith give us a fully realized “Clowns.” It’s a farewell to what was, a farewell to what might have been, and a clear-eyed look at what is, all wrapped in the sentimental song.  That’s more than a little night music. That’s quite a lot.

A Little Night Music continues through Oct. 8 at Signature Theatre’s MAX Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington.

Discussion Nights: Wednesday, Sept. 13 and Tuesday, Sept. 19. Pride Night is Sept. 15, and there is an open-captioned performance Sunday, Sept. 17 at 2 p.m.

Tickets range from $40 to $99. There are no discounts for seniors, but a limited amount of $40 tickets (typically in the sides and rear) are available for every performance at Signature. Rush tickets for $30 are available at the box office beginning one hour prior to show and are subject to availability on a first-come, first served basis.

Tickets may be purchased online at www.signature-theatre.org, by calling Ticketmaster at (703) 573-SEAT, or by visiting the box office during business hours, weekdays 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and weekends from noon to 6 p.m.

The theater is accessible for people with disabilities, and it is recommended that special seating needs be mentioned when tickets are purchased. Free listening devices are available. Free parking is available in nearby public garages.

For general information, contact Signature at (703) 820-9771 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.