A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC
A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, Hayes Theatre Co at the Hayes Theatre, 13 October-11 November 2023. Photography by John McCrae: above - the company; below - Blazey Best; below again - Leon Ford and Best
A Little Night Music (1973), Stephen Sondheim’s greatest achievement, opens with a Swedish, rather than Greek, chorus of black-clad music students. As Mr Lindquist, Mrs Nordstrom, Mrs Anderssen, Mr Erlanson, and Mrs Segstrom they warm up their vocal cords and usher in the first of many great songs: “Night Waltz”.
In umbrous half-light, on a veranda beyond the long windows of a spacious, tile-floored conservatory, the musicians also occupy the space while the actors, when not on stage, sit on either side of the floor. It’s a smart way to make the most of the Hayes stage and a large cast (set design Jeremy Allen).
This motley mob is centred around Madame Armfeldt (Nancye Hayes). She’s a formidable matriarch who commands with a raised eyebrow and caustic remark from the comfort of a manservant-driven bathchair. Her young granddaughter Frederica (Pamelia Papacosta), shares the mansion while hoping that her mother, famous but fading actress Desiree Armfeldt (Blazey Best), will visit or even take her on tour.
Although fabled for her Norah and her Hedda, one role Desiree has never mastered is that of mother. When she does return it’s to host a “Weekend in the Country” during which she intends to wrest a one-time lover (Leon Ford) from his still-a-virgin new bride (Melanie Bird). It doesn’t go according to plan.
Based on Ingmar Bergman’s celebrated 1955 film, Smiles of a Summer Night, it might surprise today’s audiences that long before introspection and the chilly gloom of Scandi-noir TV, there was comedy – and Bergman’s film was one of the best. In his adaptation, Sondheim made full use of the in-one-door-out-another, hiding-behind-the-sofa almost farcical elements. There’s much laughter as Desiree juggles and drops the balls of not one, but two lovers, their furious spouses, and a couple of subplots involving a cello-playing seminarian younger son (Jeremi Campese), a saucy maid (Kiana Daniele) and about-face loves/not loves.
A startlingly contemporary view of marriage comes from new lover and blustering dragoon officer Count Carl-Magnus (Joshua Robson) and his wearily cynical wife Countess Charlotte (Erin Clare). She has endured his military absences and time spent with his mistress for just about long enough; nevertheless, society’s double standards have her trapped, as she shares with naive Ann in the poignant and delicate “Every Day A Little Death”.
Ironically, it’s this tender account of painful humiliation that highlights a disjunct between very fine performances of the songs and the breakneck shrillness of the text’s delivery (book by Hugh Wheeler, director Dean Bryant). Together with some ear-bleeding sound imbalance in the first half – opera star Robson does not need a mic – and heavy emphasis on the treble, opening night was an aural trial for some.
Nevertheless, the two hours-plus-interval show is a feast of classic musical theatre – show and performers. As well as the ever-glorious Nancy Hayes’ impeccably judged turn, Blazey Best travels a beautifully modulated emotional arc from titillating to tristesse as the world-weary actress. Opposite her, the solid silliness of stodgy lawyer Fredrik Egerman, through Leon Ford, is a terrific foil. The same goes for Josh Robson’s pouter pigeon pomp as the self-styled cock of the walk.
At the other end of the social order, Kiana Daniele is not only a model of comedic restraint and therefore funny, but also steals the spotlight with a memorable “The Miller’s Son”. The singers are well supported by a five-piece band (plus augmented keyboard, so don’t look for the concert harp) and musical directors David Gardos and Michael Tyack, the score adapted by Matthew Moisey.
Inevitably, with love, longing, and regret in the air, A Little Night Music finally comes down to that song. How will “Send In The Clowns” be tackled? One of the most mistreated, misunderstood, and horribly-mangled ballads in musical theatre is in the hands of Blazey Best in this production and they are the finest hands – heart and brain – one could hope for. Jean Simmons (1974-5, Broadway and London) was similarly intelligent and heartbreaking – you’ll never hear the song any other way again. Recommended without reservation.