Thursday July 1, 2021 at Leeds Playhouse.
It’s always a thrill to see a celebrated giant of the musical theatre world for the first time, and this production does not disappoint. With a story inspired by an Ingmar Bergman film, book by by Hugh Wheeler and music and lyrics by the great Stephen Sondheim, this show has a lot to live up to by reputation alone. In the capable hands of director James Brining and Opera North, it delivers.
Following a collection of bed-hopping individuals in poorly thought-out couplings, A Little Night Music is essentially a sophisticated farce with a surprisingly touching philosophical undercurrent. The bed may be a hot one or a cold one; the marriages and trysts in the mix likewise, but these characters are never going to settle for a humdrum life.
As the young wife tied to a man entirely unsuitable, Corinne Cowling gives a stunning vocal throughout, mastering the score even as her character flits and falters her way through her arc. She’s well matched by Laurence Kilsby too, with Kilsby offering both powerful vocals and a flair for her step-son Henrik’s most comically adolescent moments. The agile but unfulfilled husband, Fredrik (Quirijn de Lang), can only be described as a disappointment to this young wife. And with Fredrik locked into an all-bark/ no-bite rivalry with the uber-macho Count Malcolm (Christopher Nairne) over his mistress, there’s plenty of comedy on offer.
It makes perfect sense that this musical stands out as a particularly great piece for strong female roles. Dame Josephine Barstow undoubtedly steals the show with her Madam Armfeldt, a glorious character full of sharp aphorisms and forever on the cusp of a tale about a thrilling liaison with rather virile dignitary types. Stephanie Corley’s Desiree is all disillusionment well-concealed by a pretty act, and her rendition of the famous “Send in the Clowns” provides pause and poignancy within an otherwise bustling story. From the leads to the sardonic, charming Petra (Amy J Payne) and over to the hilariously stoic Countess Charlotte (Helen Évora) who brilliantly lands every quip, it’s really the women that Sondheim and Wheeler seem to be celebrating here.
Also in need of mention is Madeleine Boyd’s set, which not only allows for smooth transitions for a sizeable cast, but does a very good job of richly indicating place with choice visuals rather than fussing with concrete shifts. Brining builds on Boyd’s visuals during swelling ensemble numbers by placing this large cast across all available space in what translates as one of those magical moments only live performance can achieve. While the production isn’t entirely free from the pitfalls of a generous running time, having those transition moments accompanied by a live orchestra (led by James Holmes), often makes this production feel like a “welcome home” to the various facets of theatre itself.
While the vocals are thrilling and fill the space with that distinct kind of theatrical magic attached to a Sondheim musical, it’s the wit at the centre of everything which gives this musical, and this production, an impressive buoyancy.
A Little Night Music plays Leeds Playhouse until July 17th 2021 and you can find tickets here.