Metro Stage's production of Sweeney Todd last year is by now a local legend (its leads stole IRNEs from far-more established groups), so the question surrounding their current production of A Little Night Music (which closes Saturday) was: could Sondheim lightning strike twice for this up-and-coming little theatre troupe?
And the answer is: yes - and no. Vocally, this production is actually stronger than Todd - in fact it's as strong, or stronger, than any musical production I've heard this year. Director Maryann Zschau - who starred in the last local outing of Night Music, at the Lyric - clearly understood from that experience the challenge of this score: poised on the cusp of operetta (or even opera) it relies heavily on ensembles, perhaps more than any other Sondheim musical, and so she has scoured the local landscape for singing talent to fill out its many demanding roles. Luckily for us, the cast she assembled is a vocal knockout, with dazzling turns from Robert Case, Jim Fitzpatrick, Tracy Nygard, Shana Dirik, Joelle Cross and particularly John Coons, who sounds like a baritone yet has an astoundingly high and powerful tenor top.
But alas, Zschau has generally directed these wonderful singers in a rather broad community-theatre style, and her blocking is sometimes apt, but sometimes flat. She has also made a few choices I didn't really understand (was Madame Armfeldt out of her wheelchair because the stage was so small?). And her leading man, Jim Fitzpatrick, though a likable presence, simply isn't invested in his character's conflicts, either broadly or subtly. Meanwhile production values are about what you'd expect from a young theatre company - although the instrumental ensemble, tucked away up in the balcony, was generally pretty polished.
There is some appealing acting around the edges of the production - Lenni Kmiec had hilarious attitude as the sexy Petra, for instance. And like Todd, Night Music is blessed with two great - perhaps even towering - central performances. Shana Dirik, who I felt was as good as Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Lovett last year, proves that performance was no fluke in a really stunning turn as Charlotte, the bitter wife of Sondheim's romantic roundelay (which is derived, and slightly coarsened, from Bergman's wonderful Smiles of a Summer Night). Ms. Dirik is hardly a conventional leading lady, but she has that mysterious something extra that all great performers have, and her solo in "Every Day a Little Death" I have to say was mesmerizing; she's simply one of the best singing actresses in the city. The surprise this time around was her co-star, Tracy Nygard, who did wonderfully delicate work as the world-weary Desiree Armfeldt. Ms. Nygard's moving rendition of "Send in the Clowns" was a kind of small miracle - beautifully sung, yet emotionally precise - great singing, great acting, great Sondheim.