In the summer of 1964, a college-age Teri Ralston was living in a house with a band of ambitious theater majors from San Francisco State University, preparing for her role as an old woman in a production of Brendan Behan’s “The Hostage" at the Off-Broadway Theatre in Long Beach.
Forty-three years later, she is playing another old lady, the matriarchal Madame Armfeldt, for the same theater group, now known as South Coast Repertory, as it opens the 2007-08 season Friday with “A Little Night Music."
“I always laugh when I think about that time because I don’t sew and I was head of costumes," said Ralston, reflecting on the repertory’s pioneering days. “It was just a wonderful summer of creating every aspect of theater with this great group of people, and now look what they’ve created."
Ralston, who maintains a home in Laguna Beach and also lives in New York, went on to direct or star in numerous Sondheim musicals.
Her allegiance to artistic directors David Emmes and Martin Benson "” a former boyfriend "” hasn’t dwindled over the years. “Night Music," which opens with previews Friday, marks her seventh production with the Tony Award-winning theater.
“When they asked me to do Madame Armfeldt, I was shocked that I would even be close to old enough to play her, but now I’m thrilled to be doing it," she said, in jest.
Having starred in or directed 11 Stephen Sondheim productions, Ralston is no stranger to the work of the famed composer and lyricist behind the Tony Award-wining musical, nor is she a stranger to the man himself.
In 1973, she starred in the original Broadway production of “Night Music" as Mrs. Nordstrom and worked closely with Sondheim, whom she described as a brilliant and hard-working perfectionist, while recording and presenting the music to major record companies.
“I was really the first person to sing a lot of this music," Ralston said, adding she continues to send Sondheim a holiday card each year.
Inspired by “Smiles of a Summer Night," a film by the recently deceased Ingmar Bergman, the waltz-filled musical comedy is set in turn-of-the-century Sweden and follows the romantic liaisons that play out during the endless days of summer.
“It’s about being honest with yourself and fulfilling your desires and your passions while figuring out what it is you really want in your life and trying to achieve that," Ralston said.
It is a special treat for a theater that rarely presents musicals, she added.
“This is the perfect show for this theater," she said. “It has a lot of substance and gives you something to think about. It’s not just a little piece of froth, not that all musicals are."
Ralston’s equally jazzed about working with a “fabulous cast," and her longtime friends at the theater.
“This is my family," she said. “It definitely feels like coming home."