ACT waltzes gracefully through ‘A Little Night Music’

The genius of composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim is on display in American Conservatory Theater’s production of  “A Little Night Music.”

Based on an Ingmar Bergman film, “Smiles of a Summer Night,” this 1973 Tony Award-winning musical is set during a Swedish summer at the turn of the 20th century.

During this time when the sun rarely sets,  love is arranged and rearranged among lovers young and older.

Sondheim wrote virtually the entire musical in 3/4 time, but the best known song is “Send in the Clowns,” which has been sung by the likes of Judy Collins, Barbra Streisand and others.

In the context of the show, however, it takes on deep poignancy as one of the older lovers, Desiree Armfeldt (Karen Ziemba), an actress, sings it to her former lover, Fredrik Egerman (Patrick Cassidy), to express their dilemma:  She’s ready to settle down after years of touring and of taking on various lovers, while he’s married.

And even though his 18-year-old wife, Anne (Laurie Veldheer), is still a virgin after 11 months of marriage, he’s reluctant to leave this woman who’s young enough to be his daughter. In fact, she’s close in age to his son, Henrik (Justin Scott Brown), a gloomy seminary student who’s worried about sin and who’s secretly in love with her.

Another of the older lovers is Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Paolo Montalban), a handsome but egotistical and pea-brained dragoon who has been involved with Desiree despite being married to Charlotte (Emily Skinner).

Everything comes together one weekend when everyone gathers at the country home of Desiree’s mother, Madame Armfeldt (Dana Ivey), who’s known her share of lovers. They’re joined by Desiree’s teenage daughter, Fredrika (Brigid O’Brien); the Egermans’ maid,  Petra (Marissa McGowan); and Frid (Michael McIntire), Madame Armfeldt’s servant.

There’s lots of foolish behavior, but various triangles are resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

Director Mark Lamos weaves everything together thanks to a fine cast, especially among the older characters. Ziemba as the bemused Desiree and Skinner as the wronged Charlotte have impeccable timing as they react to the goings-on, and both sing well.

Except for Veldheer’s piercing upper notes as Anne, all of the principals sing well.

The show has five other named characters who serve more as a Greek chorus. They aren’t seen by the other characters, but they introduce scenes and, in Lamos’s staging, move set pieces on Riccardo Hernandez’s set. Traditionally the three women and two men are older, but Lamos has chosen to make them younger and far more sensual, as indicated by their behavior and the underclothing they wear in the opening scene. It’s not an entirely effective approach. Moreover, they don’t blend well vocally.

The elegant period costumes for the main characters are by Candice Donnelly. Lighting by Robert Wierzel captures the almost perpetual twilight of that time in Sweden.

Orchestrations and musical direction are by Wayne Barker, while the sound is by Kevin Kennedy. Choreography, mostly waltzes, is by Val Caniparoli.

Taken as a whole, this ACT production is first rate, thanks in large part to Sondheim’s intricate music and lyrics and some outstanding performances, especially by Ziemba and Skinner.

“A Little Night Music” will continue through June 24 at ACT’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. For tickets and information, call (415) 749-2228 or visit


About the Author

Judy RichterJudy reviews San Francisco Bay Area theater and writes feature articles about activities of the Stanford women's basketball team and Fast Break Club. A longtime Bay Area journalist, she is retired from the San Francisco Chronicle, where she was a writer and copy editor.View all posts by Judy Richter →