Stephen Sondheim's most sublime achievements surpass anything in the musical theatre since Rodgers and Hammerstein. I would include among these Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street; Sunday in the Park With George; and his most recent, the controversial Passion. Still pretty good, if not of the first rank, are A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company, Follies and A Little Night Music. Even his lesser works demonstrate quirky brilliance: the tiresome Into the Woods, the strange Assassins, the misguided Pacific Overtures and his unqualified disasters, Anyone Can Whistle and Merrily We Roll Along.

Winner of four Tony Awards, eight New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards and the Pulitzer Prize, Sondheim is the most celebrated composer of our time. Hence, it is a mystifying curiosity that he does not rate a bio in Phoenix Theatre's program for its production of A Little Night Music. The musical was "suggested by" Ingmar Bergman's 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night, a masterpiece in its own right. The play labors under a rather clumsy book by Hugh Wheeler, when the light touch of Turgenev was needed. The Broadway production in 1973 starred Glynis Johns, and in 1978, it was turned into a dreadful film starring Elizabeth Taylor, directed by its stage creator, Harold Prince.

A tale of sophisticated romantic entanglements and the innocent impulsiveness of young love, the story is framed by a wise old grandmother, Madame Armfeldt, whose many experiences in priapic delights make her a sort of Swedish, Victorian Dr. Ruth. As she tells her pubescent granddaughter, Fredrika, "The summer night smiles three times: for the young, for the foolish and for the old." These two characters provide the prism through which we perceive the colors of desire.

We are introduced to a series of characters who seem hopelessly mismatched, and it is the task of the plot to unravel the ties that bind so that the appropriate lovers may be paired.

The handsome but mature lawyer Fredrik has taken as his second wife an 18-year-old nymphet named Anne. His bride of 11 months, Anne is scarcely older than Fredrik's son, Henrik, and she and Fredrik have yet to consummate their nuptials. Anne remains as virginal as her adolescent stepson, who mournfully plays the cello as he fights off the advances of the precocious maid, Petra. Frustrated, Fredrik seeks consolation from a former mistress, Desire, a voluptuous actress of renown. While she welcomes his return to her arms, Desire warns that she is embroiled with another man, a preening, pompous dragoon named Carl-Magnus Malcolm. The soldier himself is married to Charlotte, a worldly woman who accepts her husband's infidelities as inevitable. Beneath her urbane veneer, however, Charlotte pines for the return of her wayward husband to the once-blissful bosom of their marriage.

To complete the circle, Charlotte and young Anne are friends, and once they realize they share a common enemy to their marital felicity in the actress Desire, they conspire to extricate their mates from her amorous clutches.

The Phoenix Theatre production is maddeningly uneven, featuring imaginative settings (and lush lighting) by Jeff Thomson and opulent costumes by Rebecca Y. Powell. But the insistently broad direction by Michael D. Mitchell misses the mark as often as it hits it. On the whole, the acting is unsubtle and cartoonish in a manner appropriate to, say, Annie. At the same time, Mitchell has created a charming world of graceful movement, and, with the help of his assistant director, Terrance McKerrs, must assume responsibility for the otherwise uncredited choreography, which is quite fluid. The nine-piece orchestra is lovely, led by music director Jerry Wayne Harkey, and provides a romantic backdrop to the action.

The singers vary widely in ability, led by the vibrant male leads, Michael Beaubien Rosness as Fredrik and Robert Reid LaFrance as Carl-Magnus Malcolm. Rosness is the one actor who has fashioned dimension to his character, a feat utterly beyond the swaggering talent of LaFrance. Robyn Ferracane, as Desire, sings ably, if not memorably, and has the signature "Send In the Clowns," while Kristen Drathman (Petra) delivers the most haunting song, "The Miller's Son," memorably, if not ably. A chorus of five voices narrates in song much of what happens, including the irresistible "A Weekend in the Country," but, again, the men (Kevin Hemstreet and Daniel A. Kurek) outdo the ladies.

All in all, A Little Night Music delivers a pleasant opportunity to see and hear a relatively early work of Sondheim that offers tantalizing hints of darker and more brilliant works to come. The clever, libidinous by-play of Night Music becomes menacing and cynical in the towering Sweeney Todd. And, stripped of the sophisticated shell, the sexual obsessions of Passion stand naked and vulnerable in a way they never are in Night Music.

Hardly as innovative as Sunday in the Park or Follies, A Little Night Music nevertheless contains a lilting, melodic score, charming characters and a good, sexy sense of fun. If you are one of those, like me, who has never quite been able to figure out exactly what the lyrics of "Send In the Clowns" mean, here is your chance to hear the song in context, where the words almost make sense.

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Marshall W. Mason