ST. PETERSBURG — In A Little Night Music, Stephen Sondheim is like a mad genius puzzle maker. Sondheim's music and lyrics, with Hugh Wheeler's book, are so complex and intricate — there are so many moving parts — that it's practically impossible to get it all right.
But St. Petersburg Opera gets enough of the 1973 musical comedy right to make its production that opened Friday night at the Palladium Theater a pleasure.
To be sure, a Sondheim musical is never an effortless ride. The casting is so demanding that there is bound to be a clinker or two in the bunch, and in a performance like this by opera singers, the witty dialogue sometimes isn't so witty.
A Little Night Music, like most Sondheim musicals, requires a little work by the audience.
The payoffs are considerable, though. Send in the Clowns is a great song in the hands of many artists, but you haven't really experienced it until you've heard and seen it in its theatrical context. Buffy Baggott, as Desiree Armfeldt, a diva on the wrong side of 40, was spellbinding in Sondheim's ballad of regret. Kenneth Derby plays Desiree's old flame, Fredrik Egerman, and he brought a droll comic style to tricky patter songs such as Now.
Regina Torres, as the wise old courtesan Madame Armfeldt, talked-sang her way through Liaisons, giving delicious inflection to her commentary on the fools around her.
Todd W. Donovan, suitably buffoonish as Desiree's "tin soldier'' lover, Carl-Magnus, brought down the house with In Praise of Women. As his wife, Charlotte, Kriestee Haney was a vision of pain in purple and gray with her rendition of Every Day a Little Death. Kara Cornell, a sexy, glamorous Petra, lit up the theater in The Miller's Son.
Matthew Dingels, as Henrik, the horny young seminarian, got off to a shaky start in Later and never recovered. As Fredrik's virginal teenage wife, Anne, Michelle Seipel gave a frustratingly uneven performance.
The 24-piece orchestra, conducted by Mark Sforzini, the opera's artistic director, was a highlight, especially in the sumptuous waltz opening Act 2, Sondheim's homage to the Carousel waltz of Richard Rodgers.
Allen Loyd's set of long, sheer white drapes and whimsical birch trees imparted a dreamy feel. With a platform in the center of the stage, the orchestra wrapped around behind it, everything looked pretty cramped. Furniture wheeled off and on, and some characters entered from or exited through the auditorium.
A.J. Wester's direction was most effective in big numbers, such as the divine Act 1 finale, A Weekend in the Country. Her choreography of the Liebeslieders — Colin Levin, Sarah Kim, Melissa Misener, Corey Trahan and Sara Peeples as a waltzing Greek chorus — worked well. It was the more intimate scenes that tended to misfire. Too often, the barbed dialogue couldn't be heard clearly, at least from my balcony seat, even though microphones lined the front of the stage.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.