The setting for A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC at the Everest Theatre is simple. Black risers upstage on the right. On the left, a large, bare branch artfully suspended parallel to the floor above a grand piano. But this is not indicative of stripped back production. There are rich and detailed aspects to this The University Of Sydney Musical Theatre Ensemble (MUSE) production of the Sondheim classic.
Rather, the branch is just a branch. Recognizable for what it is despite its lack of leaves. What lies under what the world sees, is the metaphor.
Fredrik Egerman, a middle aged lawyer, in Sweden in the early 1900s appears to have exactly what other men desire. But he has a reluctant 18 year old bride on his hands. Anne remains a virgin eleven months after their marriage and Fredrik is drawn back to a former lover, Desiree Armfield, formerly a noted actress who is reduced to playing small towns in rep.
Seeking her out, Fredrik also encounters her current lover, Carl Magnus Malcom and the pair collude to hide their renewed ardour from him. However, Carl Magnus’s weary wife, Charlotte, is pleased to inform the naïve Anne and pose as her advisor in this matter of the heart. When the two wives and husbands set out for a weekend in the country at Desiree’s mother’s estate, Act Two is set for all sorts of goings on.
A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC by Stephen Sondheim, book by Hugh Wheeler is inspired by the Ingmar Bergman film ‘Smiles of a Summer Night’ and is the English translation of Mozart’s Serenade No 13 for Strings in G Major, ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’. If that is not enough names to drop in one sentence, one could list the great and the good who have been associated with the work. From Hal Prince who directed the first production to Nancye Hayes who starred in it in 2010 at the Sydney Opera House.
Wikipedia will give lots of history of the play but what it does not mention what a difficult work this can be to do well. Sondheim’s work is well known for being complex and this piece is one of his more interwoven scores. There are lots of reprises and snippets of songs, there is ‘Night Waltz’ which recurs in different formats through the show.
Plus there is a quintet who precipitate, presage and comment on events. There’s a double quartet and a character who accompanies himself on a cello. It’s all about the music. The 3/4 waltz time of the production is what an audience takes away humming.
And the music is so well handled in this production. Musical Director Conrad Hamill skilfully negotiates the complexities and allows his orchestra to show its flair without overwhelming the cast. From the sweet piccolo in ‘The Glamorous Life’ to the bassoon resonances which begin ‘Send in the Clowns’ he stays true to the material. Equally skilfully he has guided his artists through the vocal challenges created by Sondheim. And there are some lovely voices on display despite an occasionally poor audio mix.
As Fredrik, Stuart Bryan’s voice is sturdy and steady and a perfect counterpoint to Louise Flynn’s breathy and character-filled Desiree. Their duet, ‘You Must Meet my Wife’ strikes exactly the right note between acting and singing. Just as enjoyable is ‘ Everyday a Little Death’, the elusively sad duet between Bronwyn Hicks as Anne and Christie New as Charlotte. Harry Flitcroft as Carl Magnus has the martinet thing down pat and his intention and belief carry the notes which slightly elude him.
Where acting and singing come together best is with Anna Colless as the maid Petra, who comes very close to stealing every scene she is in and her solo ‘The Miller’s Son’ is funny and sad and beautifully delivered. In fact, all of the cast who deliver dialogue or narrative sung lines place the words perfectly. This is especially evident with Sarah Gaul as Madame Armfeldt who resists any temptation to heave her bon mots at the audience or to oversing the difficult sarabande of ‘Liaisons’.
The whole ensemble evidence some very good acting here and director Alexander Andrews has made some inspired choices to support his cast. Just as the branch needs no leaves, his choice is not to age his characters. It’s a student show and these are young artists. Andrews has used no garish age makeup, unnecessary walking sticks or ludicrous limps and wobbles. He has even built in some sneaky and funny references to youthfulness into the production. The mustache joke was hilarious!
His decision to trust his cast and slow down some sequences or create a diorama-like stillness for a few individual scenes is contrasted with his ability to hurl his characters around the stage when required. ‘Send in the Clowns’ is still and focused and reliant on a wonderful performance and ‘A Weekend in the Country’ is a frenetic and exciting closer to Act 1.
The costuming by Ryan Knight also supports the cast in creating characters without accoutrement. The men wear their suits well and the upper class women move easily and elegantly in their gowns. The servants can dance easily in their outfits and still maintain a character.
The choreography is great in this show. As created by Brittany Cole, each of the individual steps is pretty simple, conform to the waltz underscore and don’t tax the non-dancers. But that simplicity is not what the theatre goer sees. Instead she creates a busy, fluid and exciting swirl of movement. She fills the available space with lines and rows then moves the groups across the wide stage in great swathes of fours and sixes. The first sequence is a waltz without voice and reliant on the dancing. It was an exciting and energetic opening number and set the scene for a great night’s entertainment.
In the last sequences of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC , Sondheim reprises almost all the major songs in the show. Having travelled through the passionate and interwoven experiences with the characters, the audience can at last see them for what they are beneath the artifice they initially presented. In the finality of Madame Armfield’s (Sarah Gaul) ‘night music’ the denuded branch metaphor is complete.
MUSE’s production (producer Rose McClelland) of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC played the Everest Theatre at the Seymour Centre between the 25th and the 28th March.