A little night music

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Hugh Wheeler. Directed by Glynis Leyshon. A Playhouse Theatre Company production. At the Vancouver Playhouse until December 23

The chanciest decision in this production of A Little Night Music pays the biggest dividends. At first glance, Nora McLellan seems oddly cast as Desirée Armfeldt. As her name suggests, Desirée is an icon of desirability, a kind of middle-aged sex goddess. The list of actors who have taken on the role since it was invented in 1973 includes Elizabeth Taylor, Jean Simmons, and more recently Blair Brown. I intend no slight when I say that McLellan is not in that glamorous league. She's mortal-and a bit lumpy-like the rest of us. There's nothing wrong with that, but it does make for something of a disconnect when Desirée's suitors sing a duet about her physical perfection.

McLellan's triumph here is that she exudes a whole other kind of bawdy appeal. She taps into Desirée's libertine, somewhat jaded side and finds complexity there. You can easily imagine this Desirée sharing both schnapps and frank sexual pleasure with men. Her eccentricity-including the almost tomboyish way she throws herself around the furniture-is charming. There's real sadness in this portrait, too. I've always found "Send in the Clowns" a mawkish song-Desirée sings it after she has offered herself to the man she truly loves and he has turned her down-but McLellan absolutely nails it. She is so vulnerable I defy you to stay dry-eyed. When the plot twists again and that man takes her in his arms, there's another moment that shows what a pro McLellan is. As her lover pulls her body to his, Desirée's arms trail behind, afraid to embrace him. When they finally enfold her love, the surge of pain and relief is heartbreaking. Technically, the gesture is deliberate, but McLellan fills it with feeling. Man, does she know what she's doing. She's the best thing in the show.

All of that said, I'm not crazy about the musical itself. Based on Ingmar Bergman's 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night, it's set among the Swedish upper class near the beginning of the 20th century. Basically, it's about the trivial affairs of rich people. Middle-aged Fredrik is married to 18-year-old Anne, who is still a virgin after 11 months as his wife. Fredrik carries a torch for his old flame, Desirée, but she's having an affair with a brainless dragoon named Carl-Magnus who flaunts his infidelity in front of his long-suffering wife, Charlotte.

But who cares? There's very little depth and almost no action in Act 1. The interest is all in Sondheim's complex score. Under Lloyd Nicholson's musical direction, a small orchestra keeps the music flowing out of the pit like yard after yard of silk, but the first act takes almost an hour and a half and that's a long time to stay interested in tricky melodic variations. There's more plot and emotion in Act 2-as well as a string of memorable tunes-but the whole still feels to me like a decorative distraction for the well-heeled or those who would like to think of themselves that way.

Nonetheless, the high standard of this production is undeniable. I had no idea that Andrew Wheeler could sing, but he's vocally assured and engaging as Fredrik. The golden-throated Kelly Metzger makes a strong Playhouse debut as Anne. And Jennifer Lines is appealingly wanton as Anne's maid, Petra.

Leslie Frankish's costume designs are so layered with subtleties of colour and texture that they're the perfect counterparts to Sondheim's music. However, her set, though extremely handsome, feels unnecessarily busy.

I admire all of the work that has gone into this show. I wish the material itself weren't so thematically slight, however. In her big number, Desirée sings, "Don't you love farce?" In this case, no, I don't.