High hopes for celebrating Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday this year were soon dashed. First his visit to London to inaugurate the Shaftesbury Avenue theatre (formerly the Queen’s) that its owner Cameron Mackintosh was re-naming after him fell through when a torn ligament kept Sondheim in New York; and then the virus caused the postponement of a production of Sunday in the Park with George with Jake Gyllenhaal as Seurat. So fans have had to make do with YouTube’s streaming of an online gala for which the likes of Meryl Streep zoomed in tributes from their homes.
Further consolation for Londoners has arrived in the form of an al fresco concert performance of A Little Night Music, presented under the auspices of Opera Holland Park. Based on Bergman’s film Smiles of a Summer Night, this is a delicate exploration of the delusions and ironies of romantic love, set among the upper-middle classes of Edwardian Sweden – and in my view, it ranks as Sondheim’s most emotionally warm and musically seductive creation, something he never bettered. A fully staged production of this masterpiece by Opera North was another victim of the coronavirus this spring: let’s hope it’s being rescheduled.
At Holland Park, a magnificent achievement, built on scarcely a week’s rehearsal and a tiny budget, was pulled off against all the odds. Performing on a bare platform roofed by two canopies, the cast was costumed in evening dress; an excellent orchestral ensemble played underneath a loggia; and the audience of about 200 was seated across the courtyard.
During the first act, the heavens held back; throughout the second act, there was a torrential downpour to which everyone present was soddenly exposed.
Yet A Little Night Music worked its spell. Janie Dee, the conductor Alex Parker and director Alastair Knights had collaborated five years previously on the piece, and their experience told – pace and style were beautifully judged, and a vivacious and resourceful cast without a weak link had been moulded into a team doing justice to all the subtleties of tone that the score and book (by Hugh Wheeler) afford.
Dee herself played the leading role of worldly-wise actress Desiree Arnfeldt, imbuing the character with robust charm and standing out in the rain to make Send in the Clowns even more moving than it usually is.
But she was only one star in the constellation: Joanna Riding was marvellously astringent as the embittered Charlotte, Damian Humbley epitomized cool male suavity as Desiree’s lover Frederik, Freddie King was very touching as the tormented adolescent Henrik, and Laura Pitt Pulford gave a barnstorming rendering of the showstopper The Miller’s Son – my personal choice for the best song Sondheim has ever written.
No further performances