American composer Stephen Sondheim passed away late last year, and anyone who ever took singing lessons knew about it. His signature songwriting style has witty lyrics, complex rhythms, and a willingness to tackle internal conflict without shying away from reality. His music offers a little gloved hand, perhaps with the promise of a turn about the room, only to leave you bereft and crying on the garden path with the bittersweet knowledge that you had just experienced the best and worst day of your life. For their second instalment, Enchanting Productions have furnished his 1973 musical A Little Night Music with a quintessential Ali Harper as Desiree Armfeldt, which is sure to please Sondheim fans. But what about those of us who still believe that musical theatre can contain nuanced explorations of human emotion? In this production the clowns were decidedly present, but where were the flawed, complicated lovers?
Get in, we’re going to Sweden. Desiree Armfeldt (Ali Harper) is a glamorous and celebrated actress touring the nation at the beginning of the 20th century. Her mother, the brusque Madame Armfeldt (Jane Keller), raises her teenage granddaughter Fredrika (Sophie Landis) out in the country on her gardened estate. In a small town nearby, successful lawyer Fredrik Egerman (Jonathan Densem) lives with his teenage wife Anne (Katie Atkins) and is growing weary of waiting for her to want to have sex with him. His son Henrik (Alex McHugh), very close in age and maturity to his stepmother Anne, studies to be a priest but is clearly fascinated by the carnal scholarship which the maid Petra (Catherine Hay) seems to promote. The third household to join the fray contains one of Desiree’s lovers, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (John Bayne), and his devoted but dispirited wife Countess Charlotte (Amanda Atlas). The main cast are supported throughout by the Liebeslieder Singers (Blair McHugh, Tara Martin, Shannon Hurley, Scott Christie and Elizabeth Ellison), a choral group who adorn the score and the action, and help to set the scene.
The costuming is lush, and the set is well-styled for the small stage in the Arts Centre’s Great Hall. Visually, the audience is getting everything they were promised in the promotional material. The skirts are full, Anne’s sleeves grow in size relative to her anxieties, and both Madame and Desiree Armfeldt appear in gorgeous beaded gowns in the second half of the show. Changes between fractious scenes of domestic bliss and private boudoirs are managed well by sliding partitions and handsome pieces of furniture, and thankfully the squeaky wheel of the dresser only rips through the transition music for one scene. The stage seems as though it could feel cramped for the performers, but if this is true, the choreography never gives it away. The chorus waltz and spin with ease. You could easily slip into a daydream and believe you were in the ballroom of some grand estate in the 1900s. In conjunction with a strong orchestra directed by Mark W. Dorrell, who plays the piano and emulates the harp with great sensitivity, the environment of the production is faultless.
And oh, the singing! The singing is consistently, frankly, amazing. At times everybody on stage seems to be singing something different, and like it’s no big deal. Being seated up the back on opening night, I found the imbalance in volume between the singers and the band created some issues with understanding all of the fast and clever lyrics, but hopefully this will be resolved during the season. My highlights of the first half came in quick succession: Madame Armfeldt (Keller) performs a knowing and warm rendition of ‘Liaisons’, the Count (Bayne) manages the paranoia of courting Desiree with outstanding enunciation and control (‘In Praise of Women’), and the cast ends the half with the climactic ‘A Weekend In The Country’, which sounds dizzyingly complicated.
The show is stacked with great performers. Amanda Atlas as Countess Charlotte sets the Great Hall giggling at many points, but in spite of her wry, acerbic wit, she delivers moments of moving tenderness and internal struggle (‘Every Day a Little Death’). John Bayne’s Count is an equal match for his wife, and though the suspicious dragoon could easily have been all noise and comedic relief, the Count is depicted as a complex man. Vain and arrogant, yes, but also confused and distracted. Watching these two find their way back to each other feels like a win for the audience, no doubt aided by Atlas’ nuanced portrayal of vulnerability.
Ali Harper makes perfect sense as Desiree Armfeldt, and she is so at ease on stage. Her partner in the piece, Jonathan Densem as Fredrik, sets her up perfectly in ‘You Must Meet My Wife’. The duo are hilarious together as a comedic team, so much so that their status as “old friends who can comfortably take the piss out of each other” eclipses their romantic chemistry. ‘Send In The Clowns’ still hits home, and hard, but more so for the visuals of the scene; Desiree’s lowered head, the pair seated together at the end of the bed, the blank look of shock on Fredrik’s face.
All that said, for a musical so invested in romance, I felt disappointed to walk away with my heart-strings so little played. If only the same could be said for Petra’s breasts. Why does Henrik cross the stage, his arms out in front of him, agony written all over his face, and proceed to conspicuously fondle Petra? And why is she impassive, retorting wryly that he would learn to deal with women one day? Judging by the script, the audience is expected to believe that Petra welcomes this advance, and takes delight in teasing the young man. The blocking, on the other hand, seems to suggest that Henrik is brimming with self-loathing and cannot act on his attraction to the maid without exploding into a fit of fury afterwards, a fury which seems directed at her. I cannot laugh at this – should I be expected to? It seems alien to the portrayal of romantic relationships going on elsewhere in the musical.
The tone of the show shivers again towards the finish, when while other couples merely misunderstand each other and muddle about, an embarrassed and despairing Henrik attempts to take his own life. Anne, characterised as a tall ditzy teenager up until this point, prevents him and finally acknowledges their love for each other. There is all the razzle dazzle of a happily ever after, but no character growth to suggest that either has learned a thing during this long Swedish evening.
A Little Night Music will entertain Sondheim-heads and give some little-night-laughs. And with this calibre of musical and vocal talent available, the ambitious undertaking lands the dismount. Fans of the texture of Sondheim’s more heartfelt songs, that rare emotional loaminess, might find some of the directing not to their taste. Nevertheless, for traditional entertainment value and musical accuracy, the production should do well. It has panache, local favourites, a lot of wit, and a location that adds to its spell. Just, don’t think too hard about the lyrics that Fredrik sings in ‘Now’.
A Little Night Music runs until Saturday 18 June.