Mu Performing Arts gives A Little Night Music new light

You likely wouldn't equate Stephen Sondheim's elegant A Little Night Music with the rousing, simple spectacle of Miss Saigon, unless it was for some kind of qualitative comparison. Like: A Little Night Music is a hundred times better.

Beyond Miss Saigon's manipulative heart and simplistic take on American politics are its Asian characters — cardboard at best, offensive at worst. Yet Mu Performing Arts and director Rick Shiomi turn these clichés on their ears in A Little Night Music.

Though the story is set in Sweden, the cast is almost entirely composed of Asian-American performers, who inhabit fully realized and complex characters — and sing a rich, absolutely satisfying score to boot.

Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler took Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night as the foundation for their musical. Like the film, A Little Night Music traces the emotional and sexual needs of a group of wealthy Swedes at the turn of the 20th century.

Enter the Egerman family: middle-aged patriarch Fredrik, his young second wife Anne, and his dour seminary-student son, Henrik. The unhappy clan thirsts for emotional and sexual satisfaction, which can't seem to be found in their well-appointed home.

The plot's spark comes from Desiree, a popular actress on tour. She and Fredrik haltingly rekindle an old relationship, until her current beau — the pompous dragoon Count Carl-Magnus — comes calling. The rivalry is set, not just between Carl-Magnus and Fredrik, but also between the count's wife, Charlotte, and Desiree — with naive and unpracticed Anne wedged in the middle.

There are close calls and sexual hijinks, but those are just window dressing. The real focus concerns unsatisfied dreams and expectations. The older set is disappointed by the fading light of their passions. (At one point, Fredrik wonders if he should ravish his wife or just take a nap.) The younger crowd finds itself unsure of the path to adulthood, especially as they observe the unhappiness of the older generation. It's all wrapped in a sumptuous score that gives dignity to the saga.

Shiomi's direction matches the mood and tone of the original, while a terrific cast, led by Sheena Janson and Randy Reyes, wrings plenty of pathos and humor out of the material. But the pace runs mechanically, and that lets the show lag between the highlights.

Still, this is a beautifully sung collection, written by one of the great American composers at the top of his game. A Little Night Music is an intriguing, thought-provoking show, despite the sometimes lingering pace.