A Little Night Music review

Theatre, Musicals
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars
A Little Night Music Victorian Opera 2019
Photograph: Jeff Busby

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Victorian Opera is bringing Sondheim's classic musical back to Melbourne

Melbourne is enjoying a wave of Sondheim at the moment, and we couldn’t be happier. Coming straight off the back of an uneven Sweeney Todd at Her Majesty’s is this Victorian Opera production of A Little Night Music. It’s a musical with a rich tradition in this city, from last year’s Watch This production starring a superb Nadine Garner to the legendary MTC production that featured Helen Morse. VO have their own Sondheim history, too; a trilogy of the composer’s works were all directed by Stuart Maunder, to varying degrees of success. Maunder is back for this production, and it is by far his most assured yet.

Maunder’s previous efforts have had problems with tonal balance more than anything else, with a worrying tendency towards the cheap laugh and the broad caricature. There is nothing cheap about the humour driving Sondheim’s most sparkling adult entertainment, and Maunder thankfully lifts his taste levels to match it. The production positively drips with wit and charm, with a sumptuous visual palette to accompany the show’s myriad musical and dramatic pleasures. And best of all, it has a cast without a single weak link; it’s the most consistent Little Night Music the city has ever seen.

The show is an adaptation of sorts of Ingmar Bergman’s 1955 film Smiles of a Summer’s Night, and concerns the efforts of an ageing actress, Desirée Armfeldt (Ali McGregor) to reconnect with former lover Fredrik Egerman (Simon Gleeson); given that he is married to a woman half his age, Anne (Elisa Colla), and she has a jealous lover of her own, Carl-Magnus (Samuel Dundas), the effort proves strenuous. As all the characters come together at the country property of Desirée’s mother Madame Armfeldt (played by Sondheim stalwart Nancye Hayes) for a ‘Weekend in the Country’, the foolishness and folly of loves both young and old are given a thorough airing.

It is as sophisticated a score as any Sondheim has written – with its complex use of triple time mirroring its tripartite romantic entanglements, and a musical pedigree that includes Rachmaninoff and Ravel – matched by Hugh Wheeler’s sublime book, surely one of the best of its kind. It demands singers who can act as well as they sing, or should that be actors who can sing as well as they act? Across the board, Maunder has gathered some of the best, led magisterially by McGregor as the melancholy heart of the show.

Written for a non-singer, Desirée is a gift of a part, awash with the regret and loneliness that comes with a long and successful career but also allowing for flashes of the verve and cheekiness of youth to peer through, and McGregor encompasses it all. Her rendition of ‘Send in the Clowns’ is a masterclass in restraint and emotional verisimilitude. Gleeson, far too young as her ageing former lover, is nevertheless gorgeously plaintive and regretful, gently silly but also touching and credible.

The rest of the cast are faultless. Verity Hunt-Ballard makes a meal of the bone-dry Charlotte, and Hayes is witheringly good as the old courtesan whose wry pronouncements skewer all those stupid enough to get close. Alinta Chidzey is delicious as the sexually confident Petra – she sets the tone for a production that feels like the characters are actually fucking, which is often not the case – and Samuel Dundas makes the blustering ego of Carl-Magnus look like naturalism. Mat Verevis and Colla are a sheer delight as Henrik and Anne, both performers to watch, and Sophia Wasley makes a charming Fredrika.

The design is a dream. I can't recall a production that hasn’t used draping as its central feature, although it does look especially decadent and seductive here. Roger Kirk’s set and costumes are rich and stylish, and Trudy Dalgleish’s lighting is dappled and warm. There were a few sound issues on opening night (it always seems inconceivable that an opera company should have to mic their shows in such a small theatre) but the upshot is that every word is articulated.

There is something timeless and exalted about this musical, the kind of intricate perfection that changes little from iteration to iteration. But this production proves that the familiar and well-trodden needn’t result in a deadening theatrical experience. Sondheim is too acerbic and knowing to atrophy into the merely pretty, and the sadness and fear that underpin this work are beautifully realised. With a cast this fine, in a production this attractive, the result is fairly irresistible.

By: Tim Byrne

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