Do I hear a waltz?

A Little Night Music isn't dancing.


5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth, 292-ARTS, $17-$58 8 p.m. Tues.- Sat.; 7:30 p.m. Sun.; 2 p.m. matinees Sat.- Sun. ends Sun., Oct. 14.

Composer genius Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music is a perfect little jewel box of a musical, though, sorry to report, one that the first collaboration between 5th Avenue and ACT has not cracked open. You can see hints of the treasures inside Sondheim's take on Ingmar Bergman's 1955 cinematic romp Smiles of a Summer Night, concerning the couplings and re-couplings among the upper class during a weekend in the country, but those glimmers are awfully faint. The froth here isn't frothy enough, the wistful romance isn't wistful enough, and, oh, the whole thing just isn't enough.

Opening night felt dismayingly like a preview, a glimpse of what might happen if the show ever comes together. The pleasant but limp quality of this well-sung show made even the set feel skimpy. Designer Nancy Thun's clean, spare lines don't quite work because the production doesn't have the panache to fill them in. The general droopiness is such that when Kendra Kassebaum, as randy maid Petra, is bouncing her defiant meditation on "The Miller's Son" off the back wall of the theater late in Act Two (an altogether perkier affair than Act One), you shake your head and wonder where the hell that came from—the dynamism feels plopped in from another kind of show.

Director David Armstrong seems to fear we'll tire of the composer's subtler waltz meditations—actors keep raising their arms or awkwardly tromping about in the middle of numbers as if to remind dubious subscribers that, Sondheim or no, this is still a conventional musical. "Every Day a Little Death," the lilting reflection on the torments of marriage sung by Charlotte (Suzanne Bouchard) and Anne (Laura Griffith)—whose husbands are both cheating with actress Desiree Armfeldt (a wry, funny Hayley Mills)—is as darkly lovely as ever until Charlotte heads downstage to sing for no reason other than because, well, that's what people do in musicals, isn't it?

Aside from the hammy and terribly costumed quintet that serves as a sort of mushy Greek chorus for the evening, the show contains scattered jewels that may be fully revealed as it tightens throughout the run. Bouchard's burnished, heartsick resignation and warm singing voice are the evening's brightest offerings, and Stephen Godwin and Robert Cuccioli are in fine form as the philandering husbands. (Elegant Claire Bloom, as the grande dame hostess, isn't nearly grande enough). Director Armstrong knows where the all the emotional payoffs should be, but his show doesn't swell toward that satisfying burst of recognition for which it's longing.

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