Theatre

While Victorian Opera’s production of A Little Night Music may fail to dazzle, it satisfyingly portrays Sondheim’s witty insights into the sweetness and sorrow of the world. By Peter Craven.

A Little Night Music

Ali McGregor and Simon Gleeson in Victorian Opera’s production of A Little Night Music.
Credit: Jeff Busby

A Little Night Music is far and away the most sumptuous of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals and it represents his most concerted traditional engagement with that quintessentially American form, after his brilliant lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy. Victorian Opera gives a pleasant and serviceable production of the show adapted from Ingmar Bergman’s dazzling and deeply romantic ’50s film comedy Smiles of a Summer Night. Stuart Maunder’s production is very watchable and Phoebe Briggs ensures this is an unusually well-sung Night Music with former opera singer Ali McGregor as a dreamy, beautifully on-the-note Desirée. The veteran Nancye Hayes plays Desirée’s mother as if the part had been written for her, and Verity Hunt-Ballard, of Mary Poppins fame, shows an aptitude for comedy as the countess. But all this makes for a good not dazzling A Little Night Music.

And what a dazzler this show with its Mozart-derived title can be. Like Mozart in his four great operas and even more like the Shakespeare of the largely happy comedies – those romps that can stab the heart such as Twelfth Night or A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night is a comedy touched with complex intimations of heartbreak. And Sondheim’s A Little Night Music is its all-but-flawless translation into a stage musical. It’s comparable in its equipoise between sparkling dialogue and brilliantly lilting songs to My Fair Lady or Oliver! in the way it carries a dramatic – in this case cinematic – original to a point of musical realisation that makes it seem natural and inevitable.

This is Sondheim after Company and Follies and its Scandi version of late Victorian/Edwardian style is an index of how closely he wanted to appropriate an Anglo or Euro opulence. No one forgets the story of Sondheim sitting down at a piano with the words, “Now I will play a medley of my most popular tunes”, and proceeding with nothing but “Send In the Clowns”, the song Desirée Armfeldt, the middle-aged actress, sings first by herself and then in a snippet of duet with her old lawyer lover, Fredrik Egerman.

The original Desirée in the 1973 New York production directed by Hal Prince, that genius of making a musical with its death-defying interplay between credible speech and miraculous song come alive, was the English actress Glynis Johns – a veteran of those old British Disney swashbucklers such as Rob Roy: The Highland Rogue. Her mother, a woman who has seen it all come and go and shine and fade, was that very great comedienne Hermione Gingold.

Twenty-two years ago Helen Morse played Desirée and Ruth Cracknell played her mother in a Melbourne Theatre Company production that introduced Lisa McCune to musical theatre as Anne, the young wife eager to discover the mysteries of sexual love. Sigrid Thornton has done A Little Night Music in Australia (opposite both Anthony Warlow and Robert Grubb) with a shaded combo of charm and drama, and Judi Dench famously did it in Britain, with Siân Phillips – Livia in I, Claudius – as the old dame.

To the extent that Sondheim’s minimalism is subliminally present in A Little Night Music, it’s there in the way every song in the show – and many of them blend together as a kind of continuous choric flow – is a variation on a waltz theme. If the music in isolation has a fault, it’s in the way it tends to highlight collective merriment – and whimsy and regret – at the expense of the individuals.

Then again, ideally the show works with a silver-service, knife-edge clarity because the neo-Shakespearean intensity of the individual characters – the sedulous lawyer, his young virginal wife, the count with his braggadocio, the countess with her desire for the complex frisson of revenge and reconciliation – is such that the music becomes a logical correlative.

Victorian Opera’s A Little Night Music is easy on the eyes and easier on the ear, even if the packaging of the sound sometimes gets a little recessed and some of the knife-sharp lyrics within the whipped cream – Hal Prince’s phrase – get a little unclear. Maunder uses the revolve in such a way as to make the world of the salon and the bedroom pretty continuous with that of the woods in which the night will smile three times with its blessing.

This makes for a pleasurable sense of continuity, though it does diminish the sharpness of the drama and the focus of the comedy.

And something comparable is true of the acting. It’s a strong cast but it could do with a rather more heightened sense of presence and difference.

Ali McGregor is a strong Desirée but the role is essentially written for an actress, which is one reason “Send In the Clowns” is only a shade more demanding than a Henry Higgins song. None of which is to deny that McGregor sings it with a creamy gorgeousness and understatement that not only highlights its intrinsic musicality and beauty of line but also proves quite moving in practice.

And Nancye Hayes, looking these days a bit like Dame Maggie Smith, sings that extraordinary recollective patter of poignancy “Liaisons” with great elegance and dispatch. It’s one of the greatest songs of its kind, with that subtly insinuated cor anglais in the background, and Hayes does it superbly. Simon Gleeson – who recently starred as Curly in Oklahoma! – is better at big boisterous singing than he is at characterising the ageing leading man behind the crusty lawyer exterior. Fredrik was played by the great Gunnar Björnstrand in the Bergman film and the Sondheim role would test the abilities of a great interpreter of Ibsen – a Michael Redgrave, say. Elisa Colla is convincing and sympathetic as his burgeoning wife, Anne, and Alinta Chidzey is wonderfully gusty as Petra in her big number about marrying the miller’s son. That one song encapsulates so much of the erotic intensity of this extraordinary musical comedy. Mat Verevis is likeable as the young seminarian son who realises what’s in his pants, and Sophia Wasley has real presence as Desirée’s daughter, Fredrika. But while Verity Hunt-Ballard shows she can do comedy, she is a bit of a test case of this amiable production’s limitations because, although she looks and sounds fine, she’s not a natural comedienne in the manner of some of the top-flight actresses who have essayed that jump from light to dark and back again in this role. Think Diana Rigg, Maria Aitken and Pamela Rabe, who was stupendously funny in the Roger Hodgman MTC production.

None of which is to deny that anyone who sees Victorian Opera’s production of A Little Night Music is likely to come out with a smile on their face and with the slightly eerie feeling they have seen, as in a dream, something of the essence of the sorrow and sweetness of the world.

That’s in the music and it’s in the marvellous dramaturgy of Bergman and the empathic brilliance with which Hugh Wheeler, who wrote the book, and Sondheim bring it to a new consummation. A Little Night Music is a satisfying, even sublime musical in any version that even half works. It lends itself easily to the crossover and sometimes approximate skills of an opera company wanting to dip its toes in that very moody and challenging form, the dramatic musical. And because A Little Night Music is as close as Sondheim ever came to, let’s say, the Lerner and Loewe of My Fair Lady and Gigi, it’s a tough proposition to triumph in. Sondheim was writing pretty consciously for a theatre that was both intensely musical in its capacity to emulate operetta but also knew the supreme value of the actor-singer.

 

Arts Diary

MULTIMEDIA The Botanical: Beauty and Peril

Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth, until November 4

MUSIC Umbrella: Winter City Sounds

Venues throughout Adelaide, July 12-28

VISUAL ART Antonia Sellbach: Frame Works

Nicholas Thompson Gallery, Melbourne, until July 21

FESTIVAL Huon Valley Mid-Winter Festival

Ranelagh Recreation Ground, Tasmania, July 12-14

CULTURE Australian Tattoo Expo

Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre, July 12-14

CLASSICAL Jandamarra

Perth Concert Hall, July 13-14

VISUAL ART Michael Armitage: The Promised Land

Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, until September 22

THEATRE Madama Butterfly

Sydney Opera House, until August 10

THEATRE AutoCannibal

Theatre Works, Melbourne, July 10-21

MUSICAL Muriel’s Wedding

Sydney Lyric Theatre, until August 25

VISUAL ART Arthur Boyd: Landscape of the Soul

Ipswich Art Gallery, Queensland, until August 18

Last chance

THEATRE Trevor

Kings Cross Theatre, Sydney, until July 6

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 6, 2019 as "A little light on". Subscribe here.

Peter Craven
is a literary and culture critic.