I was confused by A Little Night Music at first. Not by the plot - a delightfully simple tale of marraige, infidelity and finding a happy ending - but by how and why such a stellar cast were performing together for one night only in Guildford. It was only when I read the programme after that I realised the debt that we as an audience owe to the producer/musical director Alex Parker (@alexparker91 on Twitter), who is lucky enough to live the theatre-goer's dream: gathering your favourite cast and putting on a classic, under-appreciated show. I know I would do the same given half the chance!
A recent BMus graduate, Alex has achieved a remarkable amount for someone so young, working on a wide range of productions, including, most recently, The Pajama Game. As a result, he has put together an enviable little black book, which he put to excellent use in A Little Night Music. I realise I'm prone to hyperbole when it comes to blogging about musicals, but when I say stellar in this case I really mean it: Janie Dee (Desirée Armfeldt) and Joanna Riding (Countess Charlotte Malcolm) are both double Olivier award winners, Anne O'Byrne (Anne Egerman) recently starred as Christine in the DVD of Love Never Dies, Fra Fee (Henrick Egerman) is fresh from the barricades of the Les Mis film, and the entire cast have a long and impressive list of stage and screen credits to their name. This concert version - no props, no costumes, and scripts still in hand - displayed just why this cast are so successful. Their vocal and acting performances were strong enough to completely envelope us in the production, to make us laugh out loud or marvel at their singing abilities, without any of the usual accompanimients to a musical of this scale.
Of course, the cast are helped by the material they're given to perform, and A Little Night Music certainly lends itself to a concert version. Essentially the story of a handful of characters in one location over one weekend, the show relies on Sondheim's music and lyrics, which at 40 years old, are as fresh and captivating as ever. With the Menier Chocolate Factory version of Merrily We Roll Along finally bringing Sondheim's classic the acclaim it deserves in the West End, and the Chichester production of Sweeney Todd cleaning up at this year's Oliviers, Sondheim's work is once again proving its enduring worth.
My last brush with Sondheim was the new, fully orchestrated version of Sunday in the Park with George staring Julian Ovenden at Theatre du Chatelet, which I had to listen to on the radio (thank you France Culture) as the ticket price and a trip to France was a bit steep even for an obsessive like me. While there are some great songs (like Move On, which you can watch here), they are interspersed with far too much dialogue. I realise Sondheim wanted to make a point about the nature of art, especially after the original production of Merrily had just flopped, but Sunday just left me cold. Thankfully, A Little Night Music couldn't be further from Sunday. It's HILARIOUS, stuffed full of laugh out loud moments. It's also filthy, opening with a song in which Frederick (David Birrell) considers ways to get his wife of 11-months to finally sleep with him, and continuing in a similar fashion. Yet somehow at the same time, there are incredibly moving moments, full of Sondheim's trademark wry observations on human failings in relationships.
As well as the cast, Parker's concert benefitted from a 31 piece on-stage orchestra who really made the most of the score, full of 3/4 time waltzs. Apart from the ubiquituous Send in the Clowns, the songs from A Little Night Music are not well known, but they should be. Every Day A Little Death, the lament of the cheated yet loyal wife, is one of Sondheim's most heartbreaking ballads, while perhaps the most rousing first act closer ever (though Les Mis fans may disagree with me), A Weekend in the Country, is so catchy that it's been stuck in my head on and off for the last three years now, since I first watched the incredible Stephen Sondheim 80th birthday prom in 2010.
Alex Parker states that his aim is to produce the highest quality short runs and one-off productions that everyone will be talking about for a long time after. He certainly achieved that with A Little Night Music. I can't wait to see what he comes up with next!