By all accounts, A Little Night Music should not work at Theatre Three. The in-the-round stage is notoriously unforgiving to musicals, swallowing lyrics while actors try to play up, down, and all around to their audience. So put one of Sondheim's wittiest and wordiest works in there, and you'd think it would sink like a stone.
Instead, this fantastic production floats, skimming across its lush score and romantic entanglements like a honeybee flitting from flower to flower. It's as much a testament to director Marianne Galloway's sure hand and Scott A. Eckert's expert musical direction as it is the design team's careful consideration of the space and the cast's determination to make this complex show not only audible, but enjoyably so.
It begins with a modern-dress quintet that functions as a Greek chorus, tossing in a wink or a shake of the head as the men and women subtly comment on the action. Their powerful voices portend great things to come, as the main players — costumed in 1900s finery by Michael A. Robinson — make us dizzy with the waltz-heavy tunes.
Based on Ingmar Bergman's 1955 Swedish film Smiles of a Summer Night, Hugh Wheeler and Sondheim's musical weaves secret love affairs and heartsick pining together among the families connected to once-famous stage diva Desiree Armfeldt (a warm and charismatic Jennifer Kuenzer). Her old flame is Fredrik (Broadway vet John Kuether), who is now married to the flighty, teenaged Anne (Ellie Hertel). Her current flame is Carl-Magnus (Regis Allison), who's married to the no-nonsense Charlotte (Ashlie Kirkpatrick, savoring each dry retort). Fredrik's son from a previous marriage, Henrik (Russell McCook), is tortured by romantic feelings for his stepmother, while Desiree's precocious daughter Fredrika (Grace Moore) is stuck keeping her grand-dame grandmother (the regal-as-always Wendy Welch) company.
Got all that? Surprisingly, it's not too difficult to follow during the show's two-and-a-half hours, with various servants popping in and out for comic relief and a conceit that the story is taking place inside an old theater.
That framework gives the audience moments to pause and reflect, as we look to the chorus for cues during the presentational pauses. It also strips the stage of frippery and frees the large cast from moving set pieces or worrying about too many props — a distracting hurdle that often besets Theatre Three productions.
Instead the music is allowed to shine, with a crisp rendition of "A Weekend in the Country," a poignant "Send in the Clowns" from Kuenzer, and a luscious interpretation of "The Miller's Son" from Jacie Hood Wenzel as the lusty maid, Petra, proving especially satisfying. As an extra bonus, you can even hear all the lyrics.
A Little Night Music continues at Theatre Three through July 2.