A Little Night Music

A Little Night Music – music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler, suggested by Smiles of a summer night (Sommarnattens leende) the film by Ingmar Bergman

Henrik Egerman – Gabriel Vick
Mr Lindquist – Lynden Edwards
Mrs Nordstrom – Charlotte Page
Mrs Andersssen – Laura Armstrong
Mr Erlanson – John Addison
Mrs Segstrom – Nicola Sloane
Fredrika Armfeldt – Grace Link
Madame Armfeldt – Maureen Lipman
Frid – Jeremy Finch
Anne Egerman – Jessie Buckley
Fredrik Egerman – Alexander Hanson
Petra – Kaisa Hammarlund
Desirée Armfeldt – Hannah Waddingham
Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm – Alistair Robins
Countess Charlotte Malcolm – Kelly Price

Trevor Nunn – Director
David Farley – Set & Costume Designer
Caroline Humphris – Musical Supervisor
Jason Carr – Orchestrator
Lynne Page – Choreographer
Hartley T. A. Kemp – Lighting Designer
Gareth Owen – Sound Design

Tom Murray & Caroline Humphris – Musical Direction and Piano
Fiona Clifton-Welker / Hugh Webb – Harp
Eleanor Stanford – Violin
Jessica Cox – Cello
Kylie Davies / Jeremy Watt – Double bass
Melanie Henry – Woodwind
Julia Staniforth – Bassoon
Sylvia Addison – Band Consultant

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 4 December, 2008
Venue: Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre, London SE1

Stephen Sondheim’s “A little night music” came between “Follies” and “Pacific Overtures”, both of which were not commercial successes. ‘Night Music’ was a hit but the makers could never work out why. A musical adaptation of a relatively rare Swedish film directed by Ingmar Bergman that was not one of his best efforts: could this be a Broadway musical? It was, however, not Sondheim and his director Harold Prince’s first choice. In 1957 writer Arthur Laurents had suggested to Sondheim that Jean Anouilh’s “Ring round the moon” would make a good musical comedy. Prince tried twice to secure the rights to the play but was turned down. Then Sondheim recalled seeing the Bergman film, arranged a further screening and eventually got permission from the Swedish director, although they were not allowed use the original title. The name “A little night music” came from Mozart’s Serenade ‘Eine kleine nachtmusik’ (K525), a title that Sondheim had considered previously using as an alternative for his television musical “Evening primrose”.

Mozart is an apt connection because, although Sondheim’s score for “A little night music” recalls the waltzes of Brahms, Ravel and Rachmaninov, the tone of the piece recalls more the operas of Mozart in its depiction of foolish characters in search of true love. Dramatically it may recall the work of Chekhov and even Strindberg in Sondheim’s darker moments, but comedically it evokes “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Così fan tutte”.

Hugh Wheeler found it difficult to adapt the Bergman screenplay. It was perhaps too serious (the great Swedish director not well-known for comedy). He was more at home analysing the darker recesses of the human psyche. Prince wanted to keep it light and frothy but with an edge, which led to Sondheim’s dubbing it “whipped cream with knives”. Woody Allen also adapted the Bergman film for “A Midsummer Night’s Comedy”, and with its Shakespearean allusion laid more emphasis on the comedy. Bergman was a great admirer of the plays of Marivaux, which he used as inspiration for his film. He was also, surprisingly, a lover of Feydeau farces and there are elements of those too in his plot for “Smiles of a summer night”. “A little night music” capitalises on this but in the process goes even deeper, beyond the surface laughs to find the sadness hidden within.

Sondheim’s leading lady, Desirée Armfeldt, an actress constantly on tour, even likens her own life to that of high comedy in the number ‘Send in the clowns’: “Don’t you love farce? / My fault, I fear, / I thought that you’d want what I want / Sorry, my dear…”. She had had a liaison with Fredrik Egerman, a lawyer now married to his second wife, Anne, a young girl of eighteen although, even after eleven months, the marriage is still not consummated. Desiree’s daughter lives with her grandmother, Madame Armfeldt, an aged courtesan who spends her time playing cards and living on her memories of a time when she too had liaisons with most of Europe’s aristocracy. He bemoans the fact that such encounters are no longer worth the trouble (“Disgraceful! What’s become of them? / Some of them / Hardly pay their shoddy way.”). There are shades of Colette in “Gigi” as the old woman endeavours to teach her young charge how to get rich by really trying.

Fredrik’s teenage son, Henrik, meanwhile, is wracked with guilt as he is in love with his new young stepmother Anne but can’t even summon enough strength to bed the maid Petra to relieve his pent-up frustrations. Meanwhile, in another part of the action, Countess Charlotte Malcolm is trying her best to save her marriage while husband Carl-Magnus is blatantly visiting his old flame Desirée. It is Desirée who brings matters to a head by inviting all involved to her mother’s chateau for a weekend in the country where the farcical plot and the complicated relationships can be resolved.

Sondheim and Wheeler handle these romantic tragi-comic liaisons with the utmost dexterity and finesse. Why the show is so popular is that, in looking beyond the surface farce, they can see their own foibles lurking in the background, all the hard work that lovers make for themselves in the pursuit of love. The show has one of Sondheim’s most lyrical scores, abounding in waltzes in three-four time and finally puts paid to the old canard that Sondheim cannot write gorgeous tunes. Apart from all the luscious music, the wit of his lyrics is blatantly evident and in Trevor Nunn’s chamber production with a small orchestra (piano, harp, violin, cello, double bass and woodwinds) in the tiny confines of the Chocolate Factory the audience hears every delightful bon mot.

Sondheim uses trios, quartets and quintets as a chorus to comment on the action and the whole score is one continuous collection of brilliant melodies starting with the yearning voices of ‘Now’, ‘Later’ and ‘Soon’ to introduce his cast. Then it’s straight into a celebration of theatrical celebrity in ‘The Glamorous life’. ‘Remember?’ is a catalogue of memories of past encounters by all concerned, ending with “I’m sure it was you”. The humour shines through an impossible situation in ‘You must meet my wife’ as Fredrik tries to explain to Desirée his relationship with Anne (“She’d strike you as unenlightened.” “No, I’d strike her first!”). Alexander Hanson as Fredrik and Hannah Waddingham as Desirée have a terrific chemistry together which makes the final outcome all the more believable. Miss Waddingham is a very tall, very blond and very Scandinavian-looking creature who dominates the piece with her truly star performance. Incidentally she is the first trained singer to take the part of Desirée in London and she performs ‘Send in the clowns’ with real feeling for the lyrics, that recalls the original and the best version by Glynis Johns.

Alexander Hanson as Fredrik and Alistair Robins as Carl-Magnus have a brilliant duet in ‘It would have been wonderful’, in which they offer praise to their women with regret because she was perfect and they were not. Kelly Price as Charlotte both loves and hates Carl-Magnus with a mad passion and yet she’s always ready to forgive him. Gabriel Vick’s Henrik succeeds in conveying the pent-up frustrations of a young man who thinks sex is a sin. It is left to Petra the maid and Frid the manservant to be the only ones who enjoy a roll in the hay with no strings attached. Here, ‘Silly people’ one of the cut songs from the original score, is reinstated and usefully explains the servants’ attitude to their employers. Kaisa Hammarlund as Petra and Jeremy Finch as Frid are a delight. Jessie Buckley (from the BBC’s “I’d do anything” programme) is deliciously dotty as young Anne, although the part seems a bit of a stretch for her vocal ability.

Maureen Lipman plays the ancient Madame Armfeldt rather more stiffly than did Hermione Gingold in the original production way back in 1973. Has Lipman turned Madame into Lady Bracknell? The original production wanted Edith Evans to take the part and one could speculate that, had she done it, she might have repeated her performance as the old card-playing Countess from Michael Powell’s film of “The Queen of Spades”. The apophthegms emanating from Lipman’s Madame do not trip off the tongue as naturally as they did from ‘La Gingold’.

Director Trevor Nunn has reinvented Sondheim’s show for his chamber production with such complete success that we can forgive his earlier battle with “Gone with the wind”. With the Chocolate Factory’s record of successful transfers, this one ought to be heading straight for Shaftesbury Avenue. London theatre is top-heavy with musicals, but this is one production that deserves a West End showing.

  • A Little Night Music is at the Menier Chocolate Factory, Southwark Street, London SE1 until 8 March 2009
  • Tuesday to Saturday 8 p.m., Saturday & Sunday 3.30 p.m.
  • Tickets on 020 7907 7060
  • Menier Chocolate Factory

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