We think of Stephen Sondheim as sophisticated -- as we should. But for all its Scandinavian-rooted sensibilities, "A Little Night Music" could devolve into loin-driven sex farce. Fortunately, Michael McAuliffe, making his Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts directing debut, knows that a smirk is not a smile.
Inspired by Ingmar Bergman's "Smiles of a Summer Night" film set in 1900, "Night Music," borrows its title from a Mozart serenade. Debuting in 1973 (book by Hugh Wheeler), it was a then-rare hit for Sondheim involving overlapping romantic lives and spinning off a stand-alone pop song, "Send in the Clowns." Bathed in Chris Creevy's mood lighting at Smithtown, Timothy Golebiewski's operatic bedroom-chamber set and Ronnie Green's period costumes transport us far from 21st century suburbia.
Fredrik married an 18-year-old trophy bride who withholds her prize; Anne remains a virgin 11 months after their wedding. Upon hearing that the lost love of his life, Desiree, is appearing in a play nearby, Fredrik takes Anne to the theater, where she's scandalized by the renowned actress' amorous glances toward their box. Anne demands to be escorted home. Fredrik sneaks out to see Desiree in her hotel room, where they reignite their romance. "What are old friends for?" she asks.
Flattered to learn that Desiree has a daughter, Fredrika -- hint, hint -- cared for by her grandmother, a former courtesan, Fredrik impulsively sings, "You Must Meet My Wife," setting up the rousing "Weekend in the Country" Act I closer. Guests include Desiree's lover, Count Carl-Magnus, his jealous Countess, Fredrik's son Henrik, holding a torch for Anne, and a maid (Wendy Watt) eager to seduce anyone in pants. (A Swede chorus, as opposed to Greek, led by Joshua Wanger, supplies fools-for-love commentary.)
Ken Young plays Fredrik as a wimp, which works marginally well, contrasting Steve Corbellini's bombastic Count. Kelsey Gronda makes a suitably childish Anne, while Daniel O'Connor's antics as besotted Henrik are hysterical. Brianne Boyd's Countess counters her competition with wicked barbs, while Elisa Hafling as Fredrika exhibits more wisdom than any adult. Save for her grandmother: In "Liaisons," Phyllis March as Madame Armfeldt wears experience like a well-worn comforter, smoothing life's disappointments with the tenderizing gauze of time. Meanwhile, Melanie Lipton as Desiree lands her zingers while capturing, with dramatic restraint, the essence of "Send in the Clowns," enhanced by Melissa Coyle's spot-on orchestra.
Way more than "a little" night music.
WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday, through Nov. 8, Smithtown Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. Main St.
TICKETS $35, students $20; 631-724-3700, smithtownpac.org