A Little Night Music Sends in the Clowns

At Arlington’s Signature Theatre through Oct. 8

“Isn’t it bliss?” sings Desiree in “Send in the Clowns,” the signature tune from Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music.” The unambiguous answer is “YES!”

The one true “hit” of Sondheim’s storied career is crooned in a husky, hurtful murmur of rueful regret by the middle-aged actress Desiree. She addresses the verses to her onetime paramour Fredrik, who has just spurned her attempt to rekindle their romance.

Written days before the show first opened, “Send in the Clowns,” an anthem to regret and love’s renewal, was originally intended to be sung by Fredric rather than Desiree. The song’s title is drawn from a theatrical term about covering for something going wrong on stage.

Fredrik is a widower, who is now remarried to the much younger Anne. His rejection shocks former lover Desiree. It breaks through her normal way of dealing with the world with blithe one-liners and innuendos. The very intensity of this song with its ragged edge of emotion and vulnerability stuns Fredrik, who sits waiting uncomfortably for its ending.

Set in Sweden in 1900, the musical is based on “Smiles of a Summer Night,” an Ingmar Bergman’s film of the 1950s. Desiree and Fredrik are “lived” Holly Twyford and Bobby Smith. Their intense performances make the audience squirm. Desiree conducts an affair with the boastful military officer Count Malcom, a man utterly unworthy of her. Fredrik arrives with his new bride Anne. Married 11 months, they have yet to consummate their marriage.

“I’m afraid that marriage isn’t one of the easier relationships, is it?” Fredrik asks Count Malcom’s jilted wife Charlotte, play gusto by the uber-talented Tracy Lynn Olivera.

Desiree’s ancient mother Madame Armfeldt, played with hauteur by the incomparable Florence Lacy, host the quartet for a weekend at her country estate. They gather to sing “A Weekend in the Country,” another of the show’s great tunes. Lacy follows by warbling “Liaisons,” an anthem to love’s more practical side.

The remainder of the cast is Broadway-quality. Will Gartshore is a blustery and buffoonish Count Malcolm. Sam Ludwig is earnest as Henrik, Fredrik’s earnest virginal son back from his studies to become a Lutheran pastor, who has fallen hopelessly and secretly in love with his step-mother. Nicki Elledge sparkles with girlish charm as Anne.

Put these actors together for a fictive country weekend and the stage is set for trouble. Eric Schaeffer, the director, Signature Theatre’s co-founder and artistic director, Jon Kalbfleish, conductor of the 13-person orchestra, and choreographer Karma Camp, are more than a match for Sondheim’s ode to romantic and sexual mismatches. They set his clever lyrics and the music, waltz-like, in three quarter time score.

After an abortive suicide attempt and a Russian-roulette duel, the play ends on a modestly hopeful note. Leaving a few “spoilers” out, let’s just say that the reprise of “Send in the Clowns” ends by asking, “Are we a pair?”

There is no better way to spend an early autumn night than enjoying this classic Sondheim musical. It is truly a tour de force.

Signature Theatre is in Shirlington Village in Arlington. Tickets are at www.SigTheatre.org, or at the box office at 703-820-9771.

David Hoffman is past vice president for programs at the Woman’s National Democratic Club, at Dupont Circle, but lives on Capitol Hill and is a freelance journalist covering arts and entertainment as well as (dour note) “politics” and foreign policy.