Sondheim’s A Little Night Music is set in turn of the century Sweden. Middle-aged lawyer, Fredrik Egerman is in a yet-to-be consummated marriage of 11 months with the virginal 18-year old Anne. Fredrik’s melancholy, academic son, Henrik, is secretly in love with his new stepmother and receives sex lessons from hot-blooded maid Petra Anne. Frederick still holds a torch for his past lover, Desiree Armfeldt, a stage actress who is currently involved with the amusingly pompous Count Carl Magnus Malcolm, the husband of the bitter and wryly comedic Countess Charlotte Malcolm. All these characters, with their conflicting desires and jealousies, come together in the chateau of Desiree’s mother, old Madame Armfeldt for a ‘weekend in the country’.
Director Pam O Grady has delivered this complicated and challenging Sondheim work with great aplomb. A universally strong cast rise admirably to the challenge of the piece. It is wonderful to see Bronwen James revive the role of Desiree, perfectly capturing the playfulness and spirited nature of the touring actress without losing the underlying glimpses of sadness and regret. Her rendition of the wistful signature number “Send in the Clowns” performed conversationally with understated beauty, is an emotionally charged highlight.
She is well matched with past beau, Frederik, Robin Schmelzkop, and current dalliance Count Carl-Magnus, Nicholas Bishop, who both encapsulate wounded and vain men whose personal desires override any consideration to the thoughts and feelings of their partners and wider relationships. Deborah Caddy is a show stealer as Countess Charlotte Malcolm. She demonstrates the epitome of timing and control as she effortlessly switches between dry humour and heartbreak. Megan Doherty as lusty maid Petra is strong and engaging with a fine rendition of the tongue twister The Miller’s Son. Norma Knight as the matriarch Madame Armfeldt is wonderfully pan faced with some of the best one liners.
The younger cast members counter their more experienced colleagues. In her first role since leaving school, Emilene Whitehead delights as frivolous superficial and somewhat uncertain Anne. Similarly, Will Richards offers a delightfully agonised performance as lovesick Hendrik, although he appeared uncertain in the higher ranges of Sondheim’s Later. Henny Walters as Fredrika is perfect in voice and character. Having seen her in a number of roles, this reviewer is always impressed with her acting. One to watch.
One of the things to savour about this production is its visual appeal. The period costuming by Helen Snoswell is sumptuous and impressive. The woodland backdrop and surround, deftly created by Brian Budgen is beautiful, as are the well-chosen props and moveable set pieces. The modest on-stage orchestra under the direction of Christine Hodgen are costumed and span the rear of the stage, adding another layer to the three-dimensional backdrop. Effective use of sheer curtains shield them when the focus needs to be elsewhere.
Hodgen’s orchestra are superb and she has also coached her cast well in the technically difficult vocals with their complicated lyrics and particularly testing timing. The ensemble is of fine voice, unobtrusive and effective in the storytelling, key to the success of this musical.
If you love Sondheim, this is a must see. If you are new to this work, this production is a fine example with beauty, intelligence and heart.