A Little Night Music review (Playhouse, Melbourne)

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A Little Night Music, Stephen Sondheim’s 1973 bodice-ripping musical, has become a favourite of opera companies over the years. And with good reason.

It’s not that classically trained voices are necessarily required. Though when they are employed, as here in Victorian Opera’s elegant treatment at the Arts Centre, it makes for a luxuriously lush soundscape.

No, A Little Night Music seems operatic, if the categorisation is necessary, because of its particular sensibilities. The turn-of-the-century period setting (adapting a 1955 Ingmar Bergman film), with all its airs and graces and design aesthetic. The fizzy upstairs/downstairs sex comedy plot. The gorgeous pastiche score, vividly coloured by Sondheim’s long-time orchestrator Jonathan Tunick. Think Mozart’s The Marriage Of Figaro and Lehár’s The Merry Widow.

In fact it’s better, at least than the latter. Sondheim burrows much deeper into the human condition, cutting to the truth of relationships with a single couplet. Here, arguably, even more potently than his (then) contemporary relationship drama Company. The spinning bottle will land on their happy ending, sure, but there will be a stark reality check on the pitfalls of romantic entanglement along the way.

Plus Lehár never wrote an aria as timeless as Sondheim’s Send In The Clowns. As ubiquitous as it now may be, experiencing the original context gives it a whole new life.

It’s sung in this production by Ali McGregor, who proves to be dream casting as diva actress Desirée Armfeldt. McGregor departed the opera world (she’s played Widow’s Hanna Glawari multiple times) to seek greater audience connection in cabaret and it’s made her such a captivating performer. Her Desirée is fierce, funny and fragile, sweet and sour but never too much of either. And her Clowns is the heart-stopper it should be. It’s a very classy performance.

If she stands out, as she should, it’s not by much. Victorian Opera has wisely cast seasoned musical theatre talent and the ensemble is uniformly strong. Particularly the women.

Simon Gleeson has all the matinee idol charm to play leading man Fredrik Egerman, torn between old flame Desirée and his virginal bride Anne (a sweetly dim Elisa Colla). Mat Verevis is similarly charming as the serious-minded junior Egerman, awakened by his stepmum and the unprofessional help (Alinta Chidzey). Chidzey is terrific as the meddling maid, given longing and agency by Sondheim, along with the heart-rending ballard The Miller’s Son that Chidzey delivers with relish.

Just hearing a Sondheim score played with a full pit of musicians (Phoebe Briggs leads the company orchestra) is a rare thrill.

Verity Hunt-Ballard is a deliciously viperous Countess Charlotte Malcolm, trying to win back her wandering husband Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (brassy baritone Samuel Dundas, with great pomposity). Their relationship is the ickiest in its gender politics, but Hunt-Ballard sells the journey.

Sophia Wasley (Fredrika Armfeldt) and Tiernan Maclaren (Frid) are good in small roles. A quintet of fine voices (Markus Matheis, Michelle McCarthy, Juel Riggall, Paul Biencourt and Kirilie Blythman) act as a harmonious Greek chorus.

And who could forget veteran hoofer Nancye Hayes, returning to the role of bitterly sage matriarch Madame Armfeldt she last played for Opera Australia in 2010. And really, is there anyone else in Australia who could do it? She makes every quip sharp.

Director Stuart Maunder has applied an even polish to the performance, which is impressive without a single preview. Roger Kirk’s design is simple but effective, with artful curtains and a turntable creating discrete spaces. There aren’t new ideas here, but it’s handled with a conservator’s eye.

Just hearing a Sondheim score played with a full pit of musicians (Phoebe Briggs leads the company orchestra) is a rare thrill. And unlike that other Sondheim revival last week, the haphazard short-run Sweeney Todd, as much thought has gone into the casting and the presentation.

Musical devotees must make a night of it.

A Little Night Music plays the Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne until July 6.

Main image: The cast of A Little Night Music. Photo by Jeff Busby

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