This opening night performance was thoroughly entertaining and engaging from the very first note (a robust, resonant "La!" as the chorus wander on stage for the Overture to set the scene); the performers were seemingly unaffected by the stifling heat that had turned Studio 45 into a sauna – a remarkable feat, especially given the stage lights and their cumbersome (although beautifully replicated) period costume.
Set in Sweden at the turn of the 20th century, Sondheim's 1973 musical (based on the Ingmar Bergman film 'Smiles of a Summer Night') tells the tale of middle-aged lawyer Fredrik Egerman, his 18-year-old wife Anne (who, after 11 months of marriage, is still a virgin) and his son from a former marriage, Henrik – a 'resentful divinity student' who is a year older than his stepmother Anne and madly in love with her.
Fredrik is reacquainted with a former lover, actress Desiree Armfeldt, reawakening their feelings for one another. However, Desiree's current fling, Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (a pig-headed dragoon "with a brain the size of a pea") is intent on marking his territory – all the while oblivious to the feelings of his despondent, cynical wife, Countess Charlotte.
In spite of his marriage to the young Anne, Desiree becomes resolute that Fredrik is 'the one' for her (and her fatherless daughter, Fredika), while believing that he too is in need of rescue from a passionless marriage. She persuades her mother, Madame Armfeldt, to invite the Egermans to her country property for the weekend, but as circumstances would conspire, Carl-Magnus and Charlotte arrive uninvited and the romantic sojourn becomes a farcical showdown.
Director and course coordinator Martin Croft is to be commended for a seamlessly coordinated production of this sophisticated musical. The performers were well cast, exceptionally well rehearsed, and, for the most part, utterly convincing as characters that were in most instances double their age.
Credit must also go to musical director Vicky Jacobs (also on piano, leading the production's accompanying musical quintet). The cast clearly relished the opportunity to tackle Sondheim's tricky harmonies, playful rhythms (all songs are in variations of ¾ time) and wonderfully wordy lyrics with aplomb (and not forgetting the necessary ferocious diction!). Overall, the standard of singing was impressive, however the leads took a couple of numbers to warm up (opening night jitters perhaps?) and really give it their all, but by interval were well and truly into the swing of things: 'A Weekend in the Country' hit the mark perfectly, sending the audience out buzzing at half time.
Guest artist Robyn Arthur gave a delicious performance as the stately yet "immoral" Madame Armfeldt (her wistful rendition of 'Liaisons' was a treat), bound to her wheelchair with granddaughter Fredrika at her side, while either imparting proverbs or playing solitaire – her cards seeming to determine the fate of the characters around her.
Keith McNamara and Rebecca Moore had a convincing rapport as reunited lovers Fredrik and Desiree, both giving strong, poignant performances. Moore's 'Send in the Clowns' was truly moving – restrained and world-weary, with a brittle edge to her strong voice. Rose Sejean perfectly captured Anne's naivety, while Glenn Ferguson was a fragile, frustrated Henrik. Both have lovely voices with much potential. Monique Sesto impressed as Desiree's young daughter, Fredrika, as did Nicole Alicastro as saucy maid Petra (a few dodgy notes in 'The Miller's Son' aside), however the stand out performer was Stephanie Evison-Williams who gave a beautifully considered and detailed performance as Charlotte. I really hope to see more of this young actor in the future.
Thanks to both Croft's direction and a smartly designed multi-level set that a sense of depth and distance where required, the limited of space of Studio 45 simply wasn't an issue. The set and lighting design courtesy of VCA Production was both effective and symbolic – giant playing cards fluttering to the ground, frozen in mid-air.
VCA Music (Music Theatre) in association with VCA Production present
Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s
A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC
Venue: Studio 45 | 45 Sturt Street, Southbank (next to the new Recital Building)
Dates/Times: Friday 16 and Saturday 17, Wednesday to Sunday 25 November at 7.30pm and Sunday 18, Saturday 24 and Sunday 25 November at 2pm
Enquiries: 03 9685 9405