A Little Night Music – Palace Theatre

A Little Night Music press shot

The cast of A Little Night Music 40th anniversary concert at the Palace Theatre, London. Picture: Darren Bell

A Little Night Music 40th anniversary concert at the Palace Theatre, London.

Star rating: 4 stars ****

This semi-staged one-off concert version of A Little Night Music, perhaps the richest of all Stephen Sondheim’s scores in a most attractive and amusing storyline, was always likely to please and it certainly didn’t disappoint.

Given that producer Alex Parker had assembled musical theatre’s creme de la creme, not least the ridiculously-gifted Janie Dee, Joanna Riding and Laura Pitt-Pulford, to front his sumptuous 28-piece orchestra, it was a winner from the moment the curtain went up 20 minutes later than the advertised time.

That wasn’t the most auspicious of starts, coming on top of being allotted a seat at the very back of the gods, but the night got better and better the longer it went on, and it was credit to the Palace’s acoustics that every note and most of the words came up loud and clear even from what seemed a mile away.

This musical adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s delightful 1955 film Smiles of a Summer Night was the happiest of collaborations 17 years later between Sondheim’s felicitous lyrics (to a score entirely in three-four time) and Hugh Wheeler’s stylishly witty book.

And, of course, it features the first song that took Sondheim into the hit parade, ‘Send in the Clowns’ (Judy Collins’ version reached No. 17 in the mid-1970s) and is loved the world over even by those not keen on Sondheim.

Here, in the hands of the wonderful Dee, it was delivered with great simplicity and outstanding timing. She must have sung this classic hundreds of times, but it came up as fresh as paint on the crowded Palace stage, and the standing ovation at the end of almost three hours of unalloyed joy was fully merited.

The music was lushly performed and the 14 cast members who sort-of-acted their roles (not always easy with hefty scripts in hand) all had their moments in the Swedish sun.

Particularly impressive were Riding’s Countess Charlotte, painfully moving in her big number ’Every Day a Little Death’ but later extremely funny, Pitt-Pulford’s Petra, who grabbed ‘The Miller’s Son’ by the throat and gave us all a thrill, and surely Fra Fee, as the mixed-up Henrik Egerman, has the most beautiful tenor voice in the business?

Dee, Fee, Pitt-Pulford, David Birrell (a top-notch Fredrik Egerman), Anna O’Byrne as the petulant young wife and 14-year-old ArtsEd student Bibi Jay (a very clear and assured Fredrika) were all reprising roles they played when the show was road-tested at the Yvonne Arnaud in Guildford in 2013.

Among those new to the cast was Anne Reid as the ageing courtesan who had led ‘The Glamorous Life’ and a national treasure these days with Last Tango In Halifax going great guns on TV. Even though she shortly turns 80, there was no shortage of power from this superb professional of the old school.

Nadim Naaman swapped Sweeney Todd in a Tooting pie shop for this earlier, less gory Sondheim and made a fine Mr Erlandson in ‘Remember?’, while Jamie Parker was a hilariously pompous Count Carl-Magnus, great in duet with Birrell on ‘It Would Have Been Wonderful’ and his ‘In Praise of Women’ solo.

Others in a cast with no passengers were Joe Vetch, Michael Colbourne, Laura Tebbutt, Emma Harrold and Jenna Boyd, while direction was in the very capable hands of Alastair Knights.

It was a shame Reid’s mic cut out near the end and Dee had a ‘moment’ when reprising ‘Clowns’, but these were minor blips on a night that reflected great credit on that dynamic duo Parker and Knights whose admiration and feel for Sondheim – their Putting It Together was a hit at St James – has never been better demonstrated.

This might well have been a five-star night out but as faces were so hard to make out from so far away, informed comment on the quality of the acting is not easy. What can be said without fear of contradiction is that blissful music was gloriously performed with singing that fully measured up to it.

Jeremy Chapman

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