Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s brilliant staging of composer Stephen Sondheim and director-producer Harold Prince’s 1973 hit A Little Night Music brings into high relief the inferiority of Bounce, the Sondheim-Prince musical that premiered last year at the Goodman. Where Bounce veered sloppily between screwball comedy and preachy melodrama, A Little Night Music (with an aphoristic script by mystery writer Hugh Wheeler) deftly balances farcical humor and wistful pathos. And where Bounce sounded derivative of the composer’s earlier, better work, A Little Night Music transforms its influences–Viennese operetta, Sibelius, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Mozart, whose Eine kleine Nachtmusik gave the show its title–into something fresh and original. With its lilting yet conversational melodies, intricate rhythms, and literate, impudent, inventive rhymes, this score reveals Sondheim at the top of his game.

And this carefully reconsidered version is by far the best of the half dozen productions I’ve seen, including Prince’s original Broadway staging with Glynis Johns and the Goodman’s 1994 revival, starring Paula Scrofano under the direction of Michael Maggio. Director Gary Griffin and musical director Thomas Murray have specialized, over the past couple of years, in stripping traditionally lavish shows to their essence–their music and characters. As in their previous collaborations (Sondheim and Prince’s Pacific Overtures, which Chicago Shakespeare took to London, and a minimalist My Fair Lady for Court Theatre), Griffin and Murray here have rethought every dramatic beat, every phrase of the text, every dynamic in the score. The result does full justice to the material’s operetta charm while restoring a Chekhovian tone of wistfulness and wry bemusement that Sondheim intended but most directors–including Prince–avoided.

Based on the 1955 movie Smiles of a Summer Night–a rare comic effort from Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman–A Little Night Music is set in Sweden at the dawn of the 20th century and centers on two seemingly ill-sorted lovers. Flighty actress Desiree and steady, somewhat stuffy attorney Fredrik, who had an affair 14 years earlier, reconnect when Desiree’s tour brings her to Fredrik’s town. He’s now married to his second wife, Anne–a sweet young thing who regards him more as a father figure than a husband and who’s declined to consummate their marriage. The real object of Anne’s affections, though she doesn’t realize it yet, is Fredrik’s moody seminarian son, Henrik. Desiree, meanwhile, has a 14-year-old illegitimate daughter, Fredrika (you do the math). While the actress tours, the girl resides with Desiree’s mother, Madame Armfeldt, an ex-courtesan living off the wealth she accumulated through a string of affairs. For Madame Armfeldt sex has always been “a pleasurable means to a measurable end,” and she’s appalled by Desiree’s footloose, free-love lifestyle.

Desiree and Fredrik are both feeling the onset of middle age–a state Sondheim, in his early 40s when he wrote this, depicts as a “perpetual anticipation” comparable to the endless Scandinavian sunset. Desiree wants to settle down, and Fredrik wants someone who can make him feel young again–something his bride has failed to do. Meeting again, they find their old passion enhanced by a mature, worldly wisdom. But the situation is complicated not only by Fredrik’s wife but by Desiree’s ongoing relationship with a married military officer, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm. When Desiree invites Fredrik and his family to her mother’s country home in hopes of wrecking his marriage, the jealous Carl-Magnus crashes the party. The result is romantic farce in the classic Viennese tradition, as mismatched lovers pursue one another around the gardens of the Armfeldt estate.

The central element in Griffin’s revival is the music. The orchestra is visible throughout, seated upstage behind a scrim. Griffin dispenses with the scenic elements introduced by designer Boris Aronson in the original production, among them a long dinner table and a pair of motorcars for Fredrik and Carl-Magnus. Here Daniel Ostling’s set is a nearly empty raked stage, covered in white during act one and then re-covered in green when the action switches to the country in act two. Shifts in setting and mood are beautifully indicated by Broadway veteran Ken Billington’s subtle lighting.

But the great strength of this Night Music is the casting. Chicago stalwarts Barbara Robertson and Kevin Gudahl star as Desiree and Fredrik–the bohemian and the bourgeois–and they’ve never been better. Robertson’s bold portrayal of Desiree is very different from the model set by Johns, who defined the character as a cool coquette, slyly sexy but genteel. Robertson’s Desiree is raffish and earthy, with a hearty, ready laugh and an “unfeminine” taste for ale gulped from a stein. This offstage Desiree is in stark contrast to the grandly composed character she plays onstage–and at her mother’s garden party. Robertson’s Desiree is the first I believed to be a woman of the theater. And she’s a perfect counterpart to Gudahl’s dithery yet virile Fredrik. The sexual sparks and joyous friendship between them are palpable.

The high point of the evening is Robertson’s rendition of “Send in the Clowns.” Resisting the prettily sentimental melody (Sondheim himself reportedly deprecated the tune as a “piano bar song”), Robertson invests totally in the lyrics’ anger and desperation as she bids farewell to the lover she thinks she’s lost. In the famous final line–“Well, maybe next year”–she conveys a devastating weariness as Desiree contemplates one more season of one-week engagements and one-night stands. You can feel the life force draining from her, which makes the upbeat ending all the more powerful. When Desiree and Fredrik came together in a robust climactic kiss–a good old-fashioned clinch in the Hollywood style, complete with swelling strings–they fully earned the spontaneous ovation they received.

With his sleek shaved head and impeccably trimmed mustache, Michael Cerveris as Carl-Magnus is a wonderful Prussian peacock. Cerveris not only has a richly operatic voice, he’s an inventive comic actor who forges unexpected connections from moment to moment. His neurotic wife is played by English actor Samantha Spiro, one of several Brits in the production due to an agreement hammered out between the American and UK actors’ unions to accommodate the London run of Griffin’s Pacific Overtures. Spiro is a very funny comedienne who recalls Prunella Scales in Fawlty Towers and Jennifer Saunders in Absolutely Fabulous, but she takes her arch mannerisms too far in a show distinguished by its honest acting. And she makes mincemeat of what should be the crisp rhythms of “Every Day a Little Death.”

Regional-theater ingenue Julie Ruth and English actor Paul Keating bring real warmth to Fredrik’s wife and son, characters too often played for comedy as inane adolescents. Clumsily trying to create their own identities, they react to their mature “role models” with a mix of love, admiration, and rebelliousness. Parent-child antipathy also informs Helen Ryan’s performance as Madame Armfeldt: elegant and imperious, Ryan’s Armfeldt is the formidable force Desiree has spent her life fighting, turning to promiscuity as a reaction against her mother’s materialistic amorality.

In this true ensemble piece, Jenny Powers stands out as saucy maid Petra, whose song “The Miller’s Son” distills both the story’s buoyant, bawdy embrace of life and its terror of age, death, and loneliness. Mattie Hawkinson is delightful as the preternaturally wise child Fredrika, and James Rank, Jodi Jean Amble, Carol Kuykendall, John Clonts, and Kathryn Kamp are in fine voice as the five lieder singers who comment on the story.

The final image of A Little Night Music is ravishing. With the orchestra silhouetted against a starry sky, couples waltz on the green stage, reminding us that while people and their relationships live and die, the dance goes on. Happily, so does A Little Night Music–one of the most enduring works in American musical theater, as this insightful and creative production proves.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Michael Brosilow.