© T Charles Erickson Photography

© T Charles Erickson Photography

The song was SEND IN THE CLOWNS and when I first heard it in 1973, the year Stephen Sondheim’s A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC won the Tony–I was never the same. I was absolutely stricken by its painfully exquisite, wryly mournful melody and lyrics, somewhere between a dream of romance and the irony of missed chances. Huntington Theatre Company’s season opener is a thing of beauty, and captures all the yearning of romance and lusty liaisons. Originally inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s wistful film SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT about the foolishness of lovers, Sondheim’s musical in the Huntington’s hands is a sumptuous romantic roundelay of sex and death disguised as a weekend frolic in the country.

The show opens with an ensemble of five in formal evening garb singing slightly out of tune. They waft in and out of the action as roving resonance, and eventually settle into Sondheim’s urgent, waltzing tri-metered score which reiterates the unstable and ever evolving threesomes that take shape. A husband (a distinguished Stephen Bogardus as

McCaela Donovan as "Petra"

McCaela Donovan as “Petra”

Fredrik) sings of the best way to get his young virginal wife Anne (a sweet and impish Morgan Kirner) to bed. Frederik’s son Henrik (an ardent Pablo Torres) is infatuated with his youthful stepmother, but is having fun with the maid Petra played by a delectably frisky McCaela Donovan who has trouble keeping her clothes on, and brings the house down just before the finale with her solo “The Miller’s Son” nailing Sondheim’s ruefully sensual tone.

Bobbie Steinbach is beyond perfection as Madame Armfeldt, the wheelchair-bound matriarch trailing a catalogue of aristocratic lovers, and a bushel full of bon mots as she imparts worldly wisdom to her wide-eyed granddaughter Frederika (the lovely Lauren Weintraub). She is drolly observant of the mismatched lovers who have all ended up at her country home for the weekend fueled by “desire,” in the person of “Desiree,” Madame Armfeldt’s glamorous actress daughter. In the show’s one major miscasting flaw, Desiree, the diva to die for, is played by a gaunt Haydn Gwynne who fails to conjure up the requisite allure.  She and Frederik were once in love and the glow of their illicit past may spark yet again; but for now Desiree is stringing along a big, burly, and hilariously humorless Count played by Mike McGowan. The Count’s wife played by Lauren Molina gets the biggest laughs of the evening as the dizzyingly coiffed, go for broke countess determined to reclaim her man.

A-Little-Night-Music-3This production is so physically beautiful– costumes and set–I fell in love just looking at it. Derek McLane’s sets are airy and minimal– but grandly gestured. Act I features drapes of velvet and brocade cascading over a gauzily lit boudoir and parlor. The women are gorgeous in Robert Morgan’s turn of the century gowns, their sensuous hourglass bodices made of of satin and silk in the city, turn to creamy lace in the country. Act II is a sylvan dreamscape, a Scandanavian Forest of Arden: towering white birches hover over enchanted lovers in hot pursuit under a spill of moonlight. Boston Ballet’s one time resident choreographer Danny Pelzig has created elegantly nimble dances.

Through it all, Sondheim’s bittersweet score–tart lyrics and tender melodies–whirls us through the action, a kaleidoscope of shifting liaisons culminating in a climactic game of Russian roulette; but the only death is “la petite mort,” the little death of sexual release that settles everyone down, kills us just a little, and makes life worth living. As for “Send in the Clowns,” the song was delivered flawlessly by Ms. Gwynne in an incandescent moment where the words and music, Hugh Wheeler’s book, and Peter Dubois precise and delicate direction all come together perfectly.

DO NOT MISS “A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC at the Huntington through October 11!