American Theater Group’s magical ‘A Little Night Music’ continues two-city NJ run in Rahway

by JAY LUSTIG
little night music review

LIANNE SCHOENWIESNER, SPOTLIGHTS PHOTOGRAPHY

“A Little Night Music” cast members include, from left, Graham Rowat, Jack Dossett, RJ Christian, Alyssa Wray (above), Tara Rajan, Ruth Gottschall, Kate Baldwin, Benjamin H. Moore, Lillie Langston and Abby Middleton.

It’s 1900, in Sweden. Fredrik, a lawyer, is visiting his ex-lover, Desirée, a famous — though a little past her prime, professionally — actress. She asks Fredrik, who has recently married a woman far younger than him, why he has come to see her, and he doesn’t seem to know what to say. His answers seem more like questions to himself.

LIANNE SCHOENWIESNER, SPOTLIGHTS PHOTOGRAPHY

Kate Baldwin in “A Little Night Music.”

“For old times’ sake? For curiosity? To boast about my wife? To complain?”

Desirée and Fredrik’s complicated relationship is at the core of “A Little Night Music,” which was written by Stephen Sondheim (music, lyrics) and Hugh Wheeler (book) and was the 1973 Tony winner for Best Musical. And in the production that American Theater Group presented at The Sieminski Theater in Basking Ridge, March 7-10 — and is now presenting at The Hamilton Stage at The Union County Performing Arts Center in Rahway, through March 24 — these two characters are played by the husband-and-wife team of Broadway veterans Kate Baldwin and Graham Rowat. The casting is perfect, as their strong voices and commanding stage presences anchor a musical that can get quite whimsical at times.

I don’t mean “whimsical” in a bad way. “A Little Night Music” — inspired by the film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” a 1955 Ingmar Bergman-directed comedyis, simply, one of the late Sondheim’s greatest achievements, and this production does justice to it.

It is a stripped-down version, in some ways. While the original Broadway production had 18 cast members, there are only 12 here, and a three-piece group (featuring piano, harp and cello) handles all of the music.

But thanks to director Hunter Foster, musical director Keith Levenson and, really, everyone involved, you don’t feel like there is anything missing, or that “A Little Night Music” needs anything more than what it has, here, to work its magic.

LIANNE SCHOENWIESNER, SPOTLIGHTS PHOTOGRAPHY

Graham Rowat and Lillie Langston in “A Little Night Music.”

To get back to the story … Fredrik has been married to the teenaged Anne (Lillie Langston) for close to a year, but while she does love him, she is so unready for marriage that she remains a virgin, much to Fredrik’s frustration. And Desirée is having an affair with the married, somewhat doltish soldier Carl-Magnus (Benjamin H. Moore), whose wife Charlotte (Abby Middleton), an acquaintance of Anne’s, plots to win him back.

Clearly, Desirée and Fredrik — who meet each other again after Fredrik and Anne attend one of Desirée’s plays — were happier with each other than they are now. But is a future together, in some way, really possible?

Meanwhile, Fredrik’s gloomy, seminary-attending son Henrik (Jack Dossett) is secretly in love with Anne, and fooling around with Anne’s saucy maid Petra (Alyssa Wray, the 2021 “American Idol” finalist). But Petra eventually finds a more suitable match with Frid (RJ Christian), the manservant of Desirée’s imperious, wheelchair-bound mother Madame Armfeldt (Ruth Gottschall) — who is caring for Desirée’s wise-beyond-her-years daughter Fredrika (Tara Rajan) as Desirée travels all over Sweden, taking acting jobs.

Madame Armfeldt loves telling stories about her glamorous love affairs of the past. And Petra contemplates the ups and downs of marriage in Sondheim’s tongue-twisting “The Miller’s Son,” singing:

LIANNE SCHOENWIESNER, SPOTLIGHTS PHOTOGRAPHY

Alyssa Wray in “A Little Night Music.”

It’s a very short road
From the pinch and the punch
To the paunch and the pouch
And the pension.

It’s a very short road
To the ten thousandth lunch
And the belch and the grouch
And the sigh.

In the second half of the musical, all the characters come together for a chaotic weekend in the country together, and the musical peaks, emotionally, with Desirée singing the sad, contemplative “Send in the Clowns” — one of Sondheim’s best-known songs, of course — to Fredrik. But rest assured, everything gets sorted out, and true love prevails.

In addition to Baldwin and Rowat, standouts among the cast members include Langston, who makes the childlike Anne more than the one-dimensional cartoon she could have been in the hands of a lesser actress; and Middleton, who projects a wicked sense of glee as the cunning Charlotte. And while Dossett goes through long stretches without a lot to do as Henrik, he explodes with angst, convincingly, on Henrik’s solo song, “Later.”

Also, Rajan — who some may remember as one of the von Trapp children in The Paper Mill Playhouse’s 2022 production of “The Sound of Music,” which also featured Rowat as the heroic Capt. Georg von Trapp — gives a smooth, confident performance that shows, once again, that she may have a bright future in front of her, on the stage.

The American Theater Group is presenting “A Little Night Music” at The Hamilton Stage at The Union County Performing Arts Center in Rahway, with remaining shows scheduled for March 15-17 and 21-24. Visit ucpac.org or americantheatergroup.org.

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